Maybe before bizarrely boasting in the New York Times that its country is home to, among other good stuff, “the planet’s largest population of wolves,” the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan should have realized this: The intolerant, misogynistic, and backwoods Kazakhstani journalist and the documentary-style film the government is unofficially responding to is fictional. The United States, however, doesn’t have any excuses for some of the very real citizens depicted in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Borat Sagdiyev is the creation of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen of Da Ali G Show, whose sketches involve Cohen inhabiting one of three ridiculous characters (including Borat) around unsuspecting audiences. The concept is a little Candid Camera, is a bit more of Punk’d, and most closely resembles the non-crotch-crunching skits of Jackass. But Cohen’s Borat is a departure: His victims never find out it’s a joke, he blames his offensive statements and behavior on his unsophisticated birthplace, and, at least in Borat the film, it’s the people he deals with who often end up showing their ignorance. Do you laugh or gasp, for example, when a rodeo cowboy tells Borat that “we’re” trying to get the United States to hang homosexuals like they allegedly do in Kazakhstan? Or when a gun supplier has an instant recommendation when the foreigner requests the best weapon for killing a Jew? (Cohen is Jewish.) Women, too, get a verbal bitches-and-hos treatment, courtesy of chest-thumping college kids.
For the most part, though, Cohen isn’t hellbent on easily eliciting the discrimination of a few Americans, and viewers who aren’t afraid of a little scatological humor or a lot of what the MPAA would call “adult situations” will have a blast. (Fans of The Aristocrats, I’m talking to you.) Directed by Larry Charles, a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm contributor, and co-written by Cohen and a trio of others (Old School’s Todd Phillips also gets a story credit), Borat is centered on the journalist’s attempt to make a documentary about life in the states. Borat and his assistant, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), initially intend to film only in New York, but Borat insists on traveling the country to get to California after he discovers “the beautiful CJ,” aka Pamela Anderson, on Baywatch.
This leads to other scenes of much funnier regional stereotypes, such as the New Yorkers who almost universally tell the affectionate Borat to fuck off when he tries to greet them and the considerably warmer reception he gets when his Washington, D.C., visit (not the recent publicity stunt) coincides with a popular annual event. Black teens hanging out, a feminist group, Southern conservatives, and Pentecostal Christians all get Borat’s innocent-seeming teach-me treatment. (“Hazmat!” he cries at the Pentecostal church when speaking in tongues.) Some, entertainingly, take a liking to him. Others are appalled—though sometimes it takes a while for the outrage to set in because, well, he’s so gosh-darn nice. Anderson, whom Borat wants to marry, seems to be the only person who must be in on the joke.
The “movie-film,” as Borat likes to say, isn’t 82 minutes of nonstop hilarity, as there expectedly are a few scenes in which a gag is taken too far or the story just lags. The details of Borat, however, are consistently brilliant: The credits are in Kazakh—purportedly—on a grainy and faded background. “Everybody’s Talking” plays when Borat arrives in New York. And if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the bathing suit. But the most impressive ingredient is Cohen, whose inflection and timing are dead-on as he negotiates a vague accent, a native language composed of gibberish and a sprinkling of Polish, and a way of making tired American jokes funny again. The fact that he is able to use this vehicle to expose the open hate that still exists here is just a surprising bonus.
Driving Lessons, on the other hand, is as dull as its title. A coming-of-age story—nodding off yet?—about a British boy from a strict Christian family, Jeremy Brock’s directorial debut is most notable for featuring Rupert Grint, the first of Harry Potter’s three young stars to film outside the series. In that regard, the film is comparable to a television series that tries, and fails, to reinvent a former cast member of a popular sitcom. Grint gives it a respectable go; it’s Brock’s material—he’s also the writer, an area in which he’s more experienced—that falls short.
Grint plays Ben, a 17-year-old who spends one summer in Bible classes and helping out old people. His suffocating mum (Laura Linney) is also teaching him how to drive, refusing to let him get “proper lessons” even though he keeps failing the test. For some reason, Ben gets a job as an assistant to Evie (Julie Walters), an eccentric (naturally) former actress who tries to drink away her loneliness when Ben’s not around. They become instant friends all too quickly, especially considering Ben’s eye-contact-avoiding reticence. Soon the boy goes wild, rebelling against his mother by going camping with Evie and taking her to a literary festival in Scotland.
Yes, it’s all very English. Except it’s got the development of an empty Hollywood blockbuster. It’s never really clear what Ben, who also fancies himself a poet, does for Evie except offer companionship, though—symbolic-title warning—he does end up driving when she essentially kidnaps him to go sleep under the stars and then reveals that she doesn’t know how to operate her motorcar, either. Ben’s mother and seldom-seen vicar father (Nicholas Farrell) are one-note: She’s uptight, and he’s weary of her stranglehold on the family. A mom’s reluctance to set her baby free is understandable, but it feels as if there’s a particular, too-elusive reason at play here. Their faith, too, seems more like Brock’s shrugging method of shading his characters rather than beliefs Ben’s parents hold sacred.
Brock’s dialogue is mostly forgettable, occasionally dipping into treacle (“Don’t hurry your heart!”) or offering a laugh (Evie says to Ben on their camping trip, “I can tell God I forced you!”). Besides their characters having little to do and little motivation to do it, the actors are fine. Linney, with a subtle accent, is heartbreakingly desperate when she reprimands her son with, “You left God’s house. You will not leave it again!” Walters has a fluid physicality that allows her to be simultaneously elegant and funny, and she nibbles what she can of her scenes—especially her teary breakdown when Evie thinks she’s been abandoned by Ben. It’s a moment so freighted with emotion that the events prior might as well have been pre-show ads.CP