Cohen’s ‘Borat’

There has been no shortage of movies about pivotal moments of the Bush era, from the unnerving "United 93" to Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentary, "When the Levees Broke." Those films held a clear, piercing mirror to the times, but will we look back and say one of them epitomized the era? I think not. Let me offer a more cracked, wildly distorted reflection. May I propose "Borat"—a movie that is, at once, utterly singular (no one but Sacha Baron Cohen could possibly duplicate its outrages, and no one has tried) and impossible to imagine emerging at any other moment? When a comedy provokes such ear-piercing laughter—and angry cries of protest—that's a sure sign that it hit not just America's funny bone, but a raw nerve, too.

Why "Borat"? On the most obvious level, this faux documentary—which follows a bigoted, sexist, absurdly uncouth Kazakh "journalist" named Borat Sagdiyev as he travels across our fair land—paints a portrait of the American unconscious that we all do our best to hide. Racism, misogyny and homophobia come pouring out of the mouths of Baron Cohen's unsuspecting dupes, and in a time of political correctness, when the slightest suggestion of bias on the lips of a public figure gets raked over the media coals, there was something fantastically liberating (and frightening) about seeing the national id so baldly exposed.

Just as many people turned to comics such Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for news that got closer to reality than the sanitized "objectivity" of the mainstream media, "Borat" threw every notion of fairness and good taste out the window in pursuit of a lower (and perhaps higher) truth. And so we meet a used-car dealer who doesn't blink when asked if he's got any cars equipped with a "p–––y magnet"; a gun dealer who recommends a Glock for shooting a Jew; a cordial Southern hostess who bravely maintains her manners when Borat appears at the dinner table with a bag of his own feces but throws him out of the house when he invites a black hooker inside.

The ugly truths comically exposed by "Borat" were not unique to the Bush era—prejudice and ignorance are timeless—but they could only have come to light in a culture obsessed with acting out our lives in public. In any prior era, Borat's victims would have run from the camera; in the age of Facebook, YouTube and "The Hills," it beckons one and all. The promise of fame is the cheese in Baron Cohen's rattrap of a movie, and everybody bites.

What other film captured our mania for dirty linen so succinctly or caught our culture at the very moment when it seemed most eager to discard its claim to privacy? Whether you love "Borat" as the funniest movie of the decade, or hate it as a symptom of the coarsening of our cultural consciousness, it will be a treasure trove for future archeologists looking back on the first decade of the American 21st century. It's not just what "Borat" says that makes it the Bush-era movie par excellence. It's what it is.

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