Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why I Didn't Like 'Borat'

Every once in a while a movie gets talked into such a state that it is almost impossible to discuss it on its own merits. Sascha Baron Cohen's Borat is one such film. Many critics hailed the film as an edgy work of comic genius, while others complained that it was rude, degrading, and unfunny. I had heard so much about the movie that it seemed a useless gesture to actually see it myself. Nevertheless, my curiosity got the best of me and I resolved to watch it last night.

I didn't hate it. The movie was funny: there were some ridiculous, zany, and inspired moments. (Insert comment about wrestling in the hotel room here.) But my basic problem with the movie is substantial: Cohen's character spends the bulk of the movie exposing simple, credulous people to be, well, simple and credulous. At the end of the day, that just seems mean-spirited, and kind of boring.

Cohen's outrageous antics confuse people, and one wonders what an 'intelligent' reaction to him would look like. I'd argue that there is no reasonable response to someone bringing a bag of his own feces to the dinner table. In that sense, the film falls more into the category of bizarre, self-referential performance art than satirical comedy or biting social commentary.

There are those in his movie that richly deserve exposure as ignorant and prejudiced. But not many, really. His character basically takes advantage of people's desire to be polite, to help, and to understand an eccentric stranger. I am reminded of the Spongebob episode in which Patrick and Spongebob go to the Joke Shop. The proprietor explains to a wounded and confused Patrick, after zapping him with a hand-buzzer: "it doesn't matter if you don't get it - the prank is for the enjoyment of the prankster." Sacha Baron Cohen is enjoying himself at the expense of some painfully easy marks.

Contrast that to John Stewart and Steven Colbert, whose shows ruthlessly expose the hypocrisy and fatuousness of the most powerful people in the country. Now that's a premise that I can stand behind, and laugh at all day long: lampooning people who make a public stand on the basis of their own haughty ignorance. These are the people who Cohen would do well to sacrifice on the altar of mockery.

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