In an arena in the southern U.S., just before a rodeo is to begin, a genial foreigner strides into the ring to whip up the crowd with stalwart jingoism. May America win the war on terror, he proclaims in his thick Eastern European accent, and hurrahs fill the hall. May your soldiers come home victorious, he adds, to more applause. With an even greater burst of exhilaration, Borat Sagdiyev shouts, "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!" The audience cheers again.
This was supposed to be the most serious, solemn, super-politicized Toronto International Film Festival ever. And we have had plenty of grim testimonies, both doc and mock, to terrorism in the pre- and post-9/11 world, from Alexander Oey's My Life as a Terrorist: The Story of Hans Joachim Klein which documents the seizing of OPEC Ministers in Vienna in 1975 by a commando brigade that included Klein and was led by Carlos the Jackal to Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's meticulous, devastating The Prisoner: Or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, the story of an Iraqi journalist detained for nine months in Abu Ghraib, and falsely accused of a plot to assassinate the British P.M. In this company, a spin of speculative future history like Death of a President played like light, if cautionary, late-summer beach reading.
But the beauty of TIFF, with an unseeable total slate of 261 features in 10 whirlwind days, is that each moviegoer creates his own festival. And the hottest Toronto ticket, the buzz bomb of the Great White North, is another Brit-American mockumentary that is just as politically pointed as Death of a President but with a wildly raucous, satiric tone. It is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, whose guide is a purported TV host and "sixth most famous man in Kazakhstan" of the former Soviet Union. Borat is the nom de guerrilla-humor of Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G. as HBO viewers know, and many millions more will, when this deeply sick, utterly irresistible film opens in theaters Nov. 3.
Borat is one of three prominent, eagerly anticipated U.S. comedies gracing the Festival. The others are For Your Consideration, the latest in Christopher Guest's semi-improvisational parodies (following Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) and Stranger Than Fiction, in which America's top film funnyman Will Ferrell taps a kinder, gentler side Motion Picture Academy members, attention must be paid!
STRANGER THAN OSCAR
In Zach Helm's clever, calculating script, Harold Crick (Ferrell) is a solitary, hard-working I.R.S. agent who, as he methodically brushes his teeth one morning, hears an authoritative female voice say that he is brushing his teeth. Indeed, everything he does, she describes. And Harold, whose lack of an inner life is his most distinctive feature and saving grace, suddenly is rudderless. "It's not schizophrenia," he patiently explains to a shrink he visits. "It's just a voice talking in my head." He also seeks advice from Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), an English professor who helps Harold locate the source of the voice: that of reclusive novelist Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), whose current project is a book, about an I.R.S. agent named Harold Crick, called Death and Taxes. Harold fears that when she completes the novel, he'll die. Which is fine by Hilbert, a great admirer of Eiffel. "You have to die," he tells Harold. "It's her masterpiece."
For those of you who remember Woody Allen's mix of real and reel lives in The Purple Rose of Cairo or if you sometimes think your life is a movie, and wonder what the DVD commentary would sound like Stranger Than Fiction will strike a familiar chord. But mainly, Helm's script might have been confected to answer a Hollywood mogul's call, "Give me a Charlie Kaufman script, but make it adorable. The movie answers that call. With busy, doesn't-miss-a-trick direction by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) and supporting performances, including Maggie Gyllenhaal's as the mandatory love interest, that underline all the appropriate gags and emotions, Stranger Than Fiction demands to be hugged. And comes close to getting it.
That's thanks to Ferrell, who seems to be stretching his comedic skills but is in fact contracting them. No actual acting required here (unlike, say, Jim Carrey's turn in the Kaufman film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), just the occasional slim smile under existential pressure and the radiating of a dim niceness. Ferrell also intermittently channels the numerological obsessions of Hoffman's character from Rain Man. Remind me: did that film win the big... Oscar? The Academy campaign starts Nov. 10, at a theater near you.
TIFF is so routinely described as the launching pad for awards season that it's only apt that For Your Consideration is premiering here. It relates the making of a small, indie film Home for Purim, about a Southern Jewish family that some showbiz blogger unaccountably tips as an Oscar contender. In a trice, the non-starry cast (impersonated by Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Parker Posey and Christopher Moynihan) gets dreaming of statuettes an addiction that infects the film's director, sitcom veteran Jay Berman (Guest, funny) and the studio boss (Ricky Gervais) who now thinks the film could be big big big, if only everything were changed.
Some of the sharpest lines go to such Guest stalwarts Michael McKean, as one of the film's screenwriters (who, when asked for changes, warns, "You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because then you'd have a wet, critically injured baby") and Fred Willard, as the airhead host of a TV infotainment show (complaining about foreign films, he says, "French movies with writing on the screen I always think it's breaking news"). O'Hara has the meatiest, or hammiest, role as a has-been diva who by Oscar-nomination time has transformed, or shall we say mutilated, herself into a figure of grotesque glamour. Guest has straight-facedly proposed O'Hara as an actual awards candidate. Which proves that he is the master of an irony so deep, it almost seems unconscious.
I doubt that Baron Cohen's performance will be cited on Oscar Night. But that wouldn't be a bad idea. Among this year's films I can't think of a ballsier or, within the boundaries it sets for itself, richer characterization.
Cohen's form of ambush comedy involves donning an assured and preposterously unknowing persona the hip-hopeless Ali G., for example then embarrassing real people by asking inane questions and making rude observations. A riff on the Michael Moore style of confrontation, it's a tactic I'm usually not crazy about, since anyone can seem a fool when he's not allowed in on the joke. As Moore once made me uneasily sympathetic to (or feel pity for) General Motors chairman Roger Smith, so Ali G. nudged me to the side of the politicians and aged authors who were the butts of his fun.
With Borat, however, and Borat, my ethical reservations wilt beneath the giddy pleasure this film gave and gives me. It's the laugh that keeps on laughing. Accompanied by his obscenely obese producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), Borat has come to the U.S. to make a documentary for his countrymen about the world's most powerful nation. He is a mass of homegrown superstitions (he brings with him "a jar of gypsy tears" to prevent AIDS) and prejudices (against Jews, whom he has apparently never encountered). Checking into a Manhattan hotel, he is accompanied by the manager into the elevator, where he starts to unpack his suitcase, then demands "a smaller room." He runs through a crowded subway car vivaciously hugging wary strangers, and interviews feminists who seem annoyed by his insistence that women's brains are smaller than men's. Of his nude-wrestling encounter with his producer, we will not speak only gape, in retrospective awe and horror.
On the Washington, D.C., leg of his trip, Borat does corral a few unwary dignitaries for Ali G.-type teasing. With forced gentility, former Congressman Bob Barr listens to Borat's generous offer of homemade cheese his wife "makes it from milk from her tit." And in a discussion of family values with perennial G.O.P. candidate Alan Keyes, Borat asks, with astonished indignation, "Are you telling me that that man who tried to put a rubber fist in my annus [anus] was a homosexual!?"
Baron Cohen throws himself recklessly into all manner of potentially dangerous situations. The crowd at the rodeo starts booing Borat when he sings the "Kazakhstan national anthem" to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner." A group of young louts in an RV get Borat almost as drunk as they spout their beery misogyny. And there's an eerie scene in a revival tent where he accepts Christ as his Savoir and babbles in tongues. As if honoring the intensity of the believers' fervor, Baron Cohen does not act up he goes with the holy-water flow.
Most of the movies so-called victims, however, ask for it. The film's running gag is that Borat, like all of his supposed countrymen, has a childlike fear of Jews (a joke, of course, since Cohen and most of the film's primary perpetrators are Jewish). In his home town, the annual event is the Running of the Jew; and when he and his team travel across the U.S., they decide to drive (in an ice cream wagon) because his producer "insisted we not fly, in case the Jews repeated their attack of 9/11." While in the South, Borat and Bagatov stop in a bed and breakfast that happens to be run by a nice Jewish couple which information sets the Kazakhs fleeing as of from the undead. "Let's go back to New York," Bagatov begs Borat. "At least there are no Jews there."
Borat's fear of Jews has an exuberant, childlike ignorance it's one more medieval superstition he carries in his baggage (along with a live chicken). And that would absolve him more than the Americans he encounters. It's funny when he enters a gun store and asks the gent behind the counter, "What gun would you get to shoot and Jew?" It's creepy when the manager recommends a certain model, without missing a beat, and as if he'd had to answer that question a dozen times before.
The crowd in Toronto, though, got the joke, even before the movie was screened. Outside the theater, Baron Cohen entered on a cart pulled by six women dressed as scarved Kazakh peasants. When the film broke down at the start of its run, Baron Cohen, director Larry Charles and visiting fireman Michael Moore passed the time by answering questions. The screening was eventually postponed until the following night, leading to some grumbles from the normally ultra-placid TIFF audience although the headline on Defamer.com, "Toronto Film Festival Projectionist Slain By Angry Borat Fans," was a slight exaggeration.
Will Boratmania conquer North America as it has Toronto? I hope so, since it's the most inventive, assaultive and just plain funny comedy since South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. One clue to the movie's early power is the unease it has sparked among the presumed objects of its ridicule. The real Kazakhstan, perhaps taking a hint from Kurdistan's recent ad campaign promoting itself as "the other Iraq," is busily devising a publicity effort to counter Borat's supposed national slander.
The frightening or funny thing is that the movie's likely audience mix of hip slummers and Jackass fans will soon fall in love with the imaginary version. Travel agents, prepare to be swamped with requests for trips to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Real Kazakhstan, cart out some chickens, rapists and whores. But you might want to hold the Jews.