Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Borat's Tipping Point

Hey you guys,

So I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" and it got me thinking about how Gladwell's theories apply to the runaway success of "Borat". On one level "Borat"'s success isn't particularly surprising. It's a hilarious movie that's enjoyed almost universally glowing reviews and has been riding a massive wave of buzz and controversy for months now.

On another level "Borat" is an unlikely blockbuster. It's a low-budget, indifferently filmed adaptation of a pay-cable television show that while popular and well received, never pulled in "Sex and the City" or "Sopranos" level ratings. It's a spin-off of a show whose last feature-film adaptation (Ali G Indahouse) garnered middling reviews and was released direct-to-video in the United States. Furthermore up until fairly recently Borat was clearly Cohen's second most popular character. It was called "Da Ali G Show" after all, not "The Borat Show" though in light of the film's success I wouldn't be surprised if HBO syndicates "Da Ali G Show" under the title "Borat! Borat! Borat! (also featuring Ali G and Puppet Show)" Cohen himself was more a cult figure than a big star. I suspect that if you asked a hundred random Americans who Sacha Baron Cohen was four months ago less than ten percent would have answered correctly. And that's even after his substantial role in "Talledega Nights"

So why did "Borat" succeed spectacularly where "Ali G Indahouse" failed? For starters "Borat" takes what makes "Da Ali G Show" work, its "stickiness" as it were–Cohen interacting with real people while in character–and built a movie around it rather than wedging its star into a fictional context. Ali G or Borat aren't innately hilarious on their own. It's the real-life context Cohen sticks them in that makes them hilarious.

What Gladwell calls "word of mouth contagion" is what the film industry calls "buzz" and the buzz on "Borat" has been deafening. "Borat's" publicity campaign has been a thing of beauty. Kazakhstan's impotent protestations that the film doesn't reflect its culture or sensibility helped transform the film into an international cultural event while reinforcing the film's portrayal of the country as a backwards, provincial enclave. "Borat" also exemplifies the concept of "stickiness" in that fans don't just see the movie and enjoy it: they become gleeful disseminators of the Borat virus. They indulge in terrible Borat impersonations, parrot Borat's catchphrases (which, mark my words, will soon be just as ubiquitous and obnoxious as Austin Powers') and try to persuade their friends and family members to share their enthusiasm for the film.

Wildly popular "Borat" clips on Youtube helped spread the Borat cultural virus, as did Cohen's appearances in character on seemingly every TV show this side of "The 700 Club". "Borat" long ago stopped being a movie and became a phenomenon. In retrospect even the distributor's decision to scale back the number of screens Borat opened on looks like a stroke of genius. Nothing fuels demand quite like drastically limiting the supply.

"Borat" has turned into the kind of film people feel they need to see. At the same time I feel like the "Borat" craze has obscured its merits as a film. As I wrote earlier "Borat" is a hilarious film but I'm not at all convinced that it's anything beyond that. As Noel very eloquently wrote earlier Borat's encounters with real-life folk ultimately say less about the innate racism, sexism or anti-Semitism of Americans than they do about American's politeness, understandable desire to avoid confrontation and willingness to give inscrutable foreigners the benefit of the doubt.

I'm a fairly psycho super-fan of "Da Ali G Show". I'm the kind of guy who's seen every episode five times and tries to spread the gospel o' Cohen with evangelical zeal. And while "Borat" is hilarious it's funny in a way nearly identical to the TV show. If there's been any kind of evolutionary leap forward I'm not seeing it. I thought the running gags involving the bear and Borat's producers were great (I would have liked to have seen the film better advantage of the wider dimensions of cinema) but otherwise "Borat" sticks to exactly the kind of shtick that made the TV show work. So while I thoroughly enjoyed "Borat" I didn't find it particularly fresh or novel. For me at least it had a been-there, done-that quality.

And I'm not buying "Borat" as the brilliant satirical masterwork some of its champions are hailing it as. I think Cohen's a comic genius but the film aims fairly low and hits the mark very consistently because of it. I think the mania surrounding "Borat" speaks to the paucity of laugh-out-loud comedies out there as much as it does the film's still-very-considerable virtues.

I suspect that if I wasn't such a fan of the show I'd probably have been a lot more impressed by the film. What do you guys think? Psycho super-fans o' "Da Ali G Show" were you as slightly underwhelmed by the big-screen adaptation as I was? Has anyone else seen "Ali G Indahouse"? Have I gotten things wrong? Anybody wanna argue for "Borat" being like "Dr. Strangelove", only a million, bazillion times betterer?


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