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IMPRACTICAL JOKER

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 20, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: Under heavy makeup and pretending to be fictional American characters, British comic Sacha Baron Cohen duped some innocent and some not-so-innocent people into doing interviews for his new Showtime TV series, ‘Who Is America?’ Interviews that were deliberately designed to make the subjects look like idiots. And in the run-up to the program’s premiere last Sunday, some of those subjects — including Sarah Palin, Roy Moore and Bernie Sanders — are rightly crying foul. I’ve never been a fan of prank/practical joke humor and Baron Cohen has a reputation for being particularly mean-spirited. My awareness of him began with his big-screen venture ‘Borat.’ I didn’t review the film but I did write a column about why I didn’t want to see it, published under the headline ‘I would rather watch Bogart than Borat,’ published on Nov. 17, 2006. (Twelve years later, by the way, I still haven’t seen it.)

Some friends have been giving me a bad time because I have expressed zero interest in seeing “Borat.”

But it’s a big hit, they say — it’s been No. 1 at the box office for two weeks in a row! It’s a cultural icon. How can you not want to see it?

Actually, since I relinquished the movie beat almost nine years ago — after 20 years of seeing everything that came though town — my moviegoing has dropped dramatically. I am still a major movie buff, and my wife and I still try to go to a theater once a week — or more.

But the truth is, there are some weeks when we just can’t find anything that calls to us. And we have no compunctions about staying home instead, watching a Humphrey Bogart film noir or a 1930s comedy starring Myrna Loy … or even the latest episode of “Veronica Mars” or CSI.” 

       Sacha Baron Cohen, as 'Borat' (left) and in a portrait.

Now before I’m accused of being holier than thou, let me say that this has less to do with modern movies being morally corrupt — hey, I’m up for the new James Bond picture — than it does with the fact that most of them are just so bad.

But “Borat” doesn’t appeal to me on any level.

It’s true that I don’t think I’ll laugh enough to get past how sleazy and vulgar it is. But I also simply do not care for practical jokes.

Ask my kids — especially my stepkids.

When my wife and I were married 18 years ago, some of her children — still teens at the time — quickly gave me the practical-joke initiation: a bowl of ice cream that was actually sour cream.

To this day they remain peeved that I didn’t go along with the joke, that I was too suspicious to take that first bite.

Yeah, I know. I’m a spoilsport.

Sorry. Don’t like practical jokes.

And “Borat” — which carries the obtuse subtitle “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” — is, by all accounts, one long string of practical jokes.

A mean-spirited “Candid Camera.” “Punk’d” without celebrities.

Baron Cohen plays the title character — a Kazakhstan filmmaker who mangles English while “innocently” mocking … well, everything.

     

Some of this is obviously scripted and a lot of it parallels Baron Cohen’s HBO “reality-show” comedy series “Da Ali G Show.”

According to news stories, for “Borat” the film’s producers would line up interviews by misleading the subjects, telling them they were taking part in a real documentary.

Baron Cohen, as Borat, would then interview them on camera, goading them into saying outrageous things, or getting a reaction to his own outrageous behavior.

And while it’s apparently true that some of Borat’s “victims” make racist or other offensive remarks, that’s hardly the point.

Regardless of whatever stupid things these people may do or say, they become the butt of the joke and are made to look foolish — and this is key — because they believed or trusted a stranger.

And, apparently, releases were signed before they went on camera.

For “Candid Camera,” Allen Funt also contrived on-camera reactions from innocent bystanders — but then he let them in on the joke, often on camera, and before having them sign waivers. If they didn’t sign, their segment was scrapped.

For “Borat,” these folks didn’t have a chance.

So who wants to shell out $8 to see that?

Well, as it happens, lots of people.

Probably the same audience that paid to see the “Jackass” films.

I didn’t go to those either.