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Jews, boobies and bears, oh my! Cohen in Borat.


By Ann Morrow

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Directed by Larry Charles

‘We have three problems in Kaz-akhstan,” says Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) during the filming of his documentary Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, “economic, social, and Jew.” Borat, a TV presenter, says this with utterly sincere naivety, and during his travelogue through America, he spends a night with a hospitable Jewish family that results in a hilarious send-up of stereotypical Eastern European anti- Semitism. When Borat returns to his native soil, he finds that his fellow villagers have evolved—from making their Jewish neighbors run a gauntlet of humiliation to crucifying them. And so, the humor in Borat is not at all mean or underhanded. His repulsive ignorance of civilized behavior is inflicted equally on women, Wasps, college boys, a Texas rodeo, Southern evangelists, New Yorkers, and America’s often constipated notions of humor. By the end of the shoot, Borat has unknowingly and incisively re vealed that much of American culture is just as backward and intolerant as that of his hometown—a place where rape and incest are acceptable and prostitution is the easiest career option for women.

Borat is a tall, gangly nincompoop who wears a 1970s handlebar mustache and a tacky leisure suit. A rear view of him in a swimming thong (blithely entering water that was likely contaminated from nuclear testing by Russia) is one of the film’s sharpest sight gags.

Even though Cohen (aka Ali G.) is a Jewish Brit, the caricature is so on-target with Western ideas about impoverished Slavic countries with too many k’s in them that Cohen was threatened with legal action by Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry. In a display of that country’s lack of experience with publicity, the government’s attention helped to spawn Borat the movie. And the bottom line is: It’s very funny, and less offensive than it’s been made out to be.

While filming in New York, Borat interviews a comedy writer and enthusiastically tries to come up with jokes about his retarded brother having sex with his prostitute sister. Baffled by indoor plumbing, he washes his face in a toilet and defecates in shrubbery. His complete nonchalance about his repulsive behavior is more amusing than the behavior itself, and his scatological lingo is usually clever, if not daring. And even the more disgusting bits work within the plot’s satire, as when he gets into a tight-focus naked wrestling match with his obese co- producer (Ken Davitian).

Borat is disappointed to discover that American women can’t be abducted for sex, but even the film’s misogyny has a upbeat counterpoint: While watching Baywatch, he falls in love with Pamela Anderson, and he and his co-producer break their filming budget to leave New York City and travel to California—so that Borat can propose to her, a sweetly funny scene that ties into the ending. Cohen may be a one-note actor, and his Slavic caricature barely varies from naďve enthusiasm, but Borat’s desperate friendliness is a large part of his appeal, and his eagerness to be part of every situation (only the hate-monger frat boys repel him) allows Cohen to get away with despicable attitudes that would seem nastier from a self-aware character. In its own mildly depraved fashion, Borat is more feel-good than gross-out.

Design Error

Flushed Away

Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell

If something feels a little awry in Flushed Away, it’s because the stop-action animation technique used in the Wallace & Gromit series by Aardman Animations here is supplanted for the most part by the computer-generated smoothness of Dreamworks, the folks who brought you Shrek. It’s a transition that is not exactly seamless. The result lacks much of the charm and inherent, visual humor of the W&G series, but also opens up the story to new possibilities.

Imagine if Buzz Lightyear and Woody were actually pet rats, suddenly thrust into the underworld of the sewer system, and that they had to do what’s necessary to get back topside. That’s basically the gist of Flushed Away, which involves the adventures of upper-crusty pet rat Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman) following his, er, plunge down the loo, courtesy of an errant “street” rat, Sid (Shane Richie). Hopelessly out of his element, he enveigles the wily Rita (Kate Winslet) to help him, but first they must escape the clutches of the devious Toad (Ian McKellan) and his dimwitted henchmen (Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis). Seems Rita stands in the way of Toad’s wicked plan to flood the underground city—aka the sewer—that the rats call home.

The reasons behind Toad’s desire for vengeance are delightfully rooted in the British royal family; the movie is at its best when it sticks to the kind of humor that was made famous in the 1950s and ’60s, through the likes of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. There are innumerable stabs at the French, none of which involve Iraq, and each of which drew, first, astonished gasps, then belly laughs from the audience.

Unfortunately, the movie at times strays from this fertile ground, as if the filmmakers wanted to use as many tried-and-true motifs as possible. So, just when things are at their most inventive and witty, out come the platitudes: There’s no place like home; you’re nobody till somebody loves you; and so on. Thankfully, the filmmakers refrain from trying to get the humans to give rats a chance, in the vein of the “let’s all get along” mentality of several recent animated movies. There’s much to crow about with respect to Flushed Away, but call me old-fashioned—I miss the whimsy and clumsiness imparted by the stop action technique, and last enjoyed, quite vividly, in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

—Laura Leon

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