Published May 24, 2006
Last night at Cannes, FOX — our little old 20th Century FOX — presented a stealth screening of the funniest, lewdest, coarsest and potentially most gigantic hit of the year.
The title is “Borat,” and if this 88-minute comedy manages to get an R-rating, the world as we know it may never be the same.
The e-mailed invite read:
Kazakhstan Ministry of Information
Present You Invite to special screening of:
CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA
FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION
Borat, of course, is the invention of comedian Sascha Baron Cohen, aka hip-hop interviewer "Ali G."
Perhaps you’ve seen "Da Ali G Show” on HBO? The producers of this film, who traveled the United States to hoodwink real people into being on camera with Cohen, are hoping you have not seen the show. In fact, they specifically chose areas where HBO viewership is lowest to pull off a series of mind-boggling stunts.
The film falls somewhere between "Candid Camera" and "Jackass" as Borat, Cohen’s gray-suited, mustachioed television interviewer from Kazakhstan, meets, insults, annoys and disgusts anyone with whom he comes in contact.
Cohen never breaks character from Borat, counting on the sympathy and gullibility of people Borat meets to offer him leeway — at least initially — because he has a funny accent.
Because of that, Borat is disarming when he encounters innocents: He kisses every man on both cheeks, sometimes on the lips.
He genially convinces a well-dressed Midwestern woman to show him how to perform bathroom ablutions — and then invites a large-breasted prostitute to dinner at the woman’s home.
There is endless sex talk, something like a parody of Roberto Benigni’s Oscar proclamation, “I want to make love to all of you!”
The plot, such as it is, involves Borat and his sidekick Azamat (a surreal performance by little-known character actor Ken Davitian) traveling to New York and then across the United States, filming all their adventures.
The Russian satellite country of Kazakhstan (Romania was used as a stand in), already unhappy with Cohen because of the “Da Ali G Show,” is so thoroughly and hilariously trashed in this movie that even shuttle diplomacy may not undo the international damage.
Borat, for example, travels with live chickens in his suitcase, and routinely refers to the "town rapist" while his shrew of a wife threatens to kill him if he doesn’t come home.
But there are also some sequences that will defy censors, including one extended bit in which Borat and Azamat (sounds like HAZMAT), his sidekick — a thick eyebrowed sort of Sancho Panza with breasts larger than Pamela Anderson’s — wrestle nude in their hotel room.
The wildly explicit, freaky mayhem spills out in the hotel elevator and then down onto the stage of a conference of insurance underwriters.
The spectacle of Borat — a tall, lanky man, locked in hairy embrace with Azamat in front of several hundred straight-laced businessmen in blue blazers — may present to the MPAA its most confounding challenge ever about to rate a film for public consumption. The scenes are more disturbing than the end of "Hannibal."
Anderson, by the way, becomes the Holy Grail of “Borat,” and it’s hard to say whether she is in on the joke or not. I suspect she is not, as Borat’s journey across America to meet her is a sly and disturbing take on celebrity stalking that should only make personal bodyguards become more popular.
Armed with a picture book about "Baywatch," Borat is determined to meet the object of his fantasies.
When he does, all hell breaks loose as he literally throws a burlap sack over Anderson’s head and carries her away from a book signing.
Who knows what she thought was going on? You hope she was clued in, but it’s more than likely she wasn’t.
Also shown in embarrassing cameos typical of "Da Ali G Show" are former Congressman Bob Barr and Congressman Alan Keyes, who no doubt will be none too pleased to see themselves as comic punching bags.
But that’s what makes what Cohen and his chief collaborator, director Larry Charles, utterly brilliant.
Charles is a longtime associate of both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and Cohen has become a close personal friend of Seinfeld in the last few years. In tone and temperament, “Borat” is the bastard child of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm."
David certainly approves of the comparison. Charles told me last night that when they screened "Borat" for David in Los Angeles, he stood up half way through and began screaming for them to stop the show. It was too funny.
“Borat” may present some real problems in the long run, however. Because it places Cohen and Davitian among countless numbers of non-actors, some of the people who turn up in the film may not be too pleased.
This isn’t actually "Candid Camera" or even "Punk’d." The production company routinely secured releases from participants on the pretense that they were filming for Kazakhstan TV.
Cohen and Davitian were presented as their characters, and they never broke from that, not even when shooting ended.
“This was a movie that involved a lot of running,” Charles told me. The police were called on at least 50 occasions by upset victims of the production company’s pranks.
The nude wrestling in the insurance adjusters’ meeting sparked a near riot in that conference room, with observers racing to pull the two men off of each other (a truly unsavory prospect).
I don’t want to give too much more away, but between this little gem and the August release of “Little Miss Sunshine,” FOX (and Fox Searchlight) have become the unlikely home of cutting-edge comedy.
Considering how many good American films were available to the Cannes screening committees, some people here are beginning to wonder if somehow the deck was stacked this year.
Nearly all of the American movies that made into Cannes are either about perverse sex, objectionable behavior or some kind of reprehensible act.
At the time same, many of the European, Asian and other non-U.S. films are thoughtful, or warm or spirited in such a way to ingratiate themselves with moviegoers.
Because of this, we’re finding that the best American movies aren’t in the festival at all. So far the only American movie that anyone’s really liked has been “X-Men 3: The Last Stand.”
Certainly, Dito Montiel’s “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” would have been a far better choice than “Southland Tales” or “Fast Food Nation” — two American films very unpopular here.
And Philip Haas’ “The Situation,” which will debut at the Venice Film Festival, would have been more important to see there than some of these other, rather less accessible American choices.
On Friday night, the Weinstein Company will have a special preview Kevin Smith’s "Clerks 2," which has a lot of buzz at this point, and is said to be very funny.
Add that to "Borat," "Dreamgirls" and "World Trade Center" and you do start to wonder — as I posited in an earlier column — why Warner Bros.’ “Superman Returns” isn’t even being mentioned in Cannes as it heads to a June 30 premiere.
As far as anyone knows, there isn’t any Kryptonite on the Croisette — just lots of foie gras.
Of course, forget the screening rooms and cozy little restaurants. The real action in Cannes is about a half hour east of here, at the Hotel du Cap in Cap D’Antibes.
During the day, it’s at the Eden Roc restaurant with dramatic views of the ocean. After midnight, it’s in the hotel’s lobby bar or in the private villas.
Yesterday at lunch, for example, Harvey Weinstein mixed and mingled with high-powered investors and newer filmmakers, while Sting and Trudie Styler — with three of their kids and the “Saints” producers in tow — took over the center of the dining room.
They’d come over from the famously elegant Colombe D’Or in Saint Paul de Vence.
And “X-Men 3” director Brett Ratner had a celebratory lunch with producer Andy Davis before heading to Paris to scout locations for “Rush Hour 3.”
“I’m only doing movies with the No. 3,” he joked, but Ratner has some cool ideas for new films he’s developing.
He’s a particular fan of British actor Steve Coogan ("24 Hour Party People") who hung out at Ratner’s villa on Monday night after the spectacular "X-Men" premiere until about 5 a.m.
Considering that Ratner doesn’t drink, smoke or take drugs, you’ll be amused to know he feel asleep on the couch in the five-bedroom complex.
Meanwhile at the Eden Roc, AmFar’s dapper Vincent Roberti made the rounds and talked about Thursday night’s big annual fundraiser at Moulins de Mougins, about 20 minutes from town.
The word is that Sharon Stone is about to hit town, as well as Salma Hayek.
Penelope Cruz is among the stars coming to the dinner, and there’s a rumor afoot that Wyclef Jean will be among the musical performers.
The AmFar dinner is like the Cannes prom, and, as always, it’s shaping up to be the one not-to-be-missed event of the season!