Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Will the real Sacha please stand up?

The many personalities of Sacha Baron-Cohen

While Sacha Baron-Cohen may have yet to become a household name, the creator of “Da Ali G Show,” has gone to great lengths to create an alternate persona whose name IS on the tip of everyone’s tongue. That man: Borat.

Rapidly exhausting the publicity circuit, Baron-Cohen has been making the rounds as Kazakh reporter Borat Sagdiyev – and with a $26.3 million opening of his “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Baron-Cohen has done Borat proud.

But where does Borat end and Baron-Cohen begin? The two are often confused, and for good reason.

Baron-Cohen as Borat ceases to be an actor playing a character. He is Borat – in all his bawdy, often outrageous, and subtly naïve brilliance. What Baron-Cohen is doing is almost Vaudevillian in its complete creation of an alternate and unmistakable personality. Just as Lucy Ricardo or Groucho Marx became personalities of their own right, indistinguishable from their creators, Borat seems a throw-back to an earlier style of comedy.

In an age of growing political and racial correctness, Borat exploits our last recesses of national modesty. Under the guise of foreign innocence, Borat often takes the low road, one paved with inappropriate everything (touching, metaphors, nudity), to expose our own American hipocricies –or to insight an uncomfortable laugh.

However, it is often Borat’s more inadvertently intellectual moments that really soar: Referring to the Iraq war as our “War of Terror,” explaining that nobody likes his neighbor while at an Evangelical service, or giving an account of his musical choices to kids on the street in Atlanta.

The film itself has a nice loose story – it’s light, entertaining, and you never know where you’ll end up. But while the film is chock full of chuckles, it is also brimming with uncomfortable situations. Do the jokes go too far? Yes, but they always go too far.

A large part of the joke is that you know you’re going to be taken someplace unexpected, but while you’re in familiar surroundings. Borat turns the tables on us. He’s the foreigner, he’s the odd man out, yet he sets us on edge and makes us nervous – while we’re in our own country.

Baron-Cohen brings us face-to-face with a warped and completely shameless persona, one laced with political and religious fervor, and poised to take us to embarrassing places. And while Baron-Cohen’s hard at work, Borat’s raking in the cash.

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