November 9, 2006
‘Borat’ laughs across the U S and A—in Hebrew
Borat perfoms 'Throw the Jew Down the Well' at a country music bar in Arizona. Click on the big arrow to play All Saturday evening screenings of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" at the Sherman Oaks Galleria were sold out, but I snuck in on Sunday and will pass on two observations.
First, almost all reviews have missed the movie's funniest running joke, and, second, judging from audience reaction and some exit interviews, it's pretty hard to shock teenagers and adults in my neighborhood. Given, there are some real knee-slappers as the faux Khazakhstani TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev makes his way across America in an ice cream truck, but the biggest laugh must be reserved for star Sacha Baron Cohen and the folks at 20th Century Fox as they shlep the box office receipts to the bank.
At the Grove on Saturday night, endless lines of mainly boys shuffled through the mall, according to one observer, and the scene was repeated at 834 other theaters across the United States and Canada. The film earned an astonishing weekend gross of $26.4 million, easily beating second-ranked "The Santa Clause 3," which opened in four times as many theaters as "Borat."
The mock documentary also topped the charts in six European countries, including Baron Cohen's native Britain.
In his travels across the "U.S. and A.," the wide-eyed, mustachioed Borat encounters, and generally makes fools of, a cross-section of unsuspecting Americans. His hapless foils include humor and etiquette coaches, Washington politicians, feminists, gays, Pentecostal revivalists, drunken frat boys, blacks, rednecks at a rodeo, a car salesman and an antique store owner.
But Borat's favorite targets are Jews, and he plays the true believer of Jewish conspiracy theories to the hilt. For instance, he refuses to fly from New York to Los Angeles for fear the Jews will hijack his plane, "as they did on 9/11." His Jew phobia is so over the top, so whacky, that it is doubtful that even an assembly of ayatollahs would take it at face value.
There's a bit more shock value in some pretty gross scenes, including a highly graphic nude wrestling match between the hairy Borat and his obscenely fat producer. In another, Borat presents a bag of feces to a Southern society lady, but the teenage girl on my left said it didn't bother her.
The screening was punctuated by a lot of laughs and a few squeals, but at about the same volume as greeted a trailer of coming attractions about a bunch of klutzy cops.
Darius Moghadan of Tarzana attended with his wife and 15-year-old son, Arash. They enjoyed the movie, thought it was funny and were not put off by the wrestling and feces scenes. Arash Moghadan observed that most of his friends would see the film, because "everyone enjoys watching fools."
I had purposely skipped the advance press screening of the movie to see it with fresh eyes, as part of an opening-weekend audience.
Although "Borat" was well worth the $7.75 senior ticket, the anticipated shockwaves and full-throated laughter never fully kicked in. That's partially because I felt a sneaky sympathy for most of Borat's victims, even the bigots, who were really trying to understand and help a weird foreigner.
What's more, Baron Cohen's/Borat's nonstop appearances on TV and radio shows in advance of the opening and excerpts from the movie on the Internet had given me a pretty complete picture of what to expect.
In all the glowing reviews of the film in major newspapers and magazines, only a couple of Jewish reporters got the supreme jest that the Jew-bashing Borat frequently spoke in Hebrew. For instance, when Borat takes leave of his home village, he tells a one-armed peasant, "Doltan, I'll get you a new arm in America," according to the subtitles translated from "Kazakh." What he is actually saying is, "I'll buy you some kind of a new arm" -- in Hebrew.
He also sings the lyrics from an old Hebrew folk song and identifies his country's greatest scientist, who discovered that a woman's brain is the same size as that of a squirrel, as "Dr. Yarmulke."
Baron Cohen's Hebrew is quite excellent, thanks to an Israeli mother of Iranian descent, a year spent at Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra and his early membership in the Habonim Dror youth movement. To top it off, the 35-year-old comedian played Tevya in "Fiddler on the Roof" while attending Cambridge University.
We can expect to see a great deal more of Baron Cohen, if not as Borat, then as two of his alter egos, Ali G, a not-too-bright, would-be London rapper, and as Bruno, a gay Austrian fashionista.