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November 09, 2006

Borat Review

It ain't all that. Two and a half stars (out of four).

I started writing this review in my head before I went into the theater. It's my belief most reviewers don't have any appreciation of comedy. So they routinely pan very funny movies. But Borat got glowing reviews. Does this mean it's hellafunny?

Probably not, I figured. Critics still don't know jack about comedy; it's probably a bandwagon effect. As they can't evaluate comedy, but see other reviewers saying it's funny, they decide that it must be the Funniest Movie Ever and claim that in their reviews.

To let you know my bias: I appreciate the Ali G and Borat characters, but have never thought they were as funny as many people. Throw the Jews down the well? Ehhh... it's kinda funny to me, but I guess I'm in the minority because I don't understand what makes this The Funniest Shit Ever. I do laugh at Ali G and Borat, but I never really sought the show out. I had a bunch of episodes on HBO On Demand, but only tried to watch one, and gave up five minutes in.

It was funny, I guess. But I guess I didn't like it.

So take that bias into consideration. (On the other hand, I went in with fairly modest expectations, which were... met, but not exceeded.)

Is this movie, the movie critics have proclaimed possibly the funniest movie ever made, funny? Yes.

Is it screamingly funny? No.

I think it's about as funny as your typical comedy that's actually halfway funny. It's funnier than the dreadful funs, funnier than the mediocre ones. It's definitely in the class of movies that are actually funny, but it hardly leads the pack.

I had about five or six solid chuckles in the movie, and double that as far as amused smiles.

Parts of it are just hard to watch -- painfully awkward situations, embarrassing normal folks. Now, that's by design, of course. But it's still not really fun.

A good comedy usually relies on an actual dramatic story to get it through. Often the "dramatic story" is trivial -- Will the Waterboy get the girl and win the big game? -- but the viewer still has a rooting interest in the movie. It's not just laughs; it's lots of laughs plus a (very slight) interest in the resoution of the movie's (obligatory) conflict.

That may or may not be why you come to the movie, but it does end up having to do with whether you like the movie or not.

Borat doesn't have that, really. Yes, there is a parody of a dramatic arc to the story -- whether or not he will get the girl of his dreams, Pamela Anderson, whom he calls either "Parmela" or "Carmela" -- but there's no real rooting interest in that as it's just a gag itself. And, after a time, gags alone get tedious; anyone who's ever watched a Saturday Night Live sketch go on well past its point of dimiinishing returns can imagine what a 90 minute SNL sketch might feel like. The gags become somewhat tedious and repetitive. At parts you just count down in your head, "Now Borat will say something outrageous in five... four... three... two... and, OUTRAGEOUS!"

Which leads to my reaction, and the reaction of the two people I saw it with -- we did think the movie was pretty funny, but none of us actually liked it very much. Not that I don't respect Sasha Baron Cohen's talents, or admire him for getting this low-budget movie made, or any of that. One can respect a movie and not derive very much actual pleasure from viewing it.

It doesn't help that Borat takes on a lot of easy targets that, for example, Brits and liberal American movie critics like to see skewered no many how many times they've been skewered before. The Pentacostal (I think) church-goers, for example. Yes, it's weird when they start talking in tongues. Not really a hard laugh to get, though, is it?

There are targets who really deserve skewering -- like the rodeo manager who says, after Borat says that in Kaxakhstan homosexuals are hanged, says "We're tryin' to get that goin' here in America, too." But that's a cringe-inducing moment, not a particularly funny one. It's hard to laugh at someone advocating a Hitlerian solution to the Homosexual Problem.

One other thing is that I'm pretty damn certain a lot of the "normal people caught up in Borat's crazy shenanigans" are actually actors, or are in on the joke. In an early sequence, Borat attempts to kiss numerous pedestrians on New York's streets, for example, with all of the men running away in fear. They seemed like actors to me. Other "normal people" Borat runs into just happen to be involved in key "dramatic moments" in his quest for "Parmela." I have trouble buying he just got lucky in that respect.

That doesn't make this stuff unfunny, but part of the fun of this sort of deal is watching the reactions of "normal people" to Borat's schtick. When you start suspecting that a lot of these aren't "normal people" at all, it undermines that part of it.

For what it's worth, Borat's anti-Semitism was the most consistently funny thing in the movie, and provides my favorite moment of the film. When Borat finds out the owners of a bed and breakfast he's staying at are, in fact, accursed Jews, the look on his face -- of pure naked fear -- is priceless.

Bob Barr and Alan Keyes both show up in the DC segment to have interviews with Borat. Like many of Ali G's interviewees, these guys seem like they're in on the joke and just playing along. If so, both do a decent job.

This is an odd review to write, because I have to stress, the movie is quite funny here and there, and has lots of small chuckles amidst the real laughs. But it's not as funny as everyone says, and it's an overlong and sometimes unpleasant experience to sit through it.

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posted by Ace at 03:41 PM

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