I managed to catch three new films this weekend, one a “docu-comedy,” the other two, biopics, none of the three having much to do with one another except that all three were structured around one of the most basic and commonly used screenwriting tropes, the “fish out of water.”
In Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (directed by Seinfeld‘s Larry Charles), the fish out of water is a television journalist from Kazakhstan – impersonated by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen – who travels across America, nominally to make a documentary educating himself and his Kazakhstan viewers concerning the ways of Americans, actually to hook up with his dream woman, Pamela Anderson. (Speaking of screenwriting tropes, this one is borrowed from Frank Tashlin’s classic 1956 comedy, Hollywood or Bust, where Jerry Lewis, accompanied by Dean Martin, travels cross-country to meet his dream gal, Anita Ekberg. Borat successfully homages both Lewis and Laurel & Hardy.) The film’s gimmick – which I assume most of you have already heard about – is that practically all the people the Borat character interacts with are real, e.g., when Baron Cohen as Borat walks into a real gun shop and asks the owner what weapon would be most effective to “kill Jews,” the owner, without batting an eye, shows him the appropriate model. The film’s targets range from New York City feminists to red state anti-Semites and homophobes. I could use the clichéd line about this being a movie with “something to offend everybody,” except it wouldn’t really be true. I can’t recall being offended at any point during the film; I was too busy laughing. This is, simply put, one of the funniest films I have ever seen.
It’s almost impossible to discuss Borat in detail without giving away many of its best gags, but if you’d like to read a more intellectual analysis of the film, check out Jim Hoberman’s review, here. Hoberman calls Borat‘s Baron Cohen “a masterful improviser, brilliant comedian, courageous political satirist, and genuinely experimental film artist.” I couldn’t agree more.
As in last year’s Capote, the fish out of water in this year’s Infamous is an effete New York sophisticate, Truman Capote, who travels to Kansas to research his “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood, about the murder of a local family by a pair of criminal drifters. The twist is that Capote was born in the South himself, and his return to the world outside New York, and his eventual involvement with the murderer Perry Smith (whom he interviews in jail) becomes a return to his own repressed roots.
Many (including Bright Lights After Dark‘s Alan Vanneman) have written detailed comparisons of the two films. Infamous is indeed the better movie. Where Bennett Miller’s Capote is overly schematic – not giving us Kansas so much as a filmmaker’s abstraction of Kansas, and structuring every scene around the Faustian idea that Truman sold his soul to create In Cold Blood – Infamous, written and directed by Doug McGrath, is more human and complex. Infamous doesn’t attempt to judge or even fully understand its characters. Notwithstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in Capote, Infamous is generally speaking the better acted film – the ensemble of actors are given more room to create their characters and exist. When Daniel Craig as Perry Smith tells Toby Jones as Truman that his earlier books are lacking in “kindness,” he could be speaking about Bennett Miller’s Capote.
In Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the fish out of a water is an Austrian princess (Kirsten Dunst) transplanted to the court of Versailles. Marie Antoinette is first and foremost a treat for the eye – Ms. Coppola creates a consistently rich frame, with costumes and sets colored like icing on a birthday cake. (Versailles plays itself beautifully.) What’s most radical about Marie Antoinette – apart from its use of ’80s New Wave rock as scoring – is its attitude toward history. Where most historical films subscribe to the “great man” theory, the idea that all history results from the actions of remarkable individuals, Coppola’s Marie is purely a product of her time, acting merely as her culture and position dictate. She doesn’t make history; history makes her. Even the indebtedness of the court leading up to the French Revolution – often blamed on Marie’s excessive spending – is blamed in this version of the story on other causes, notably Louis XVI’s financial support of the American Revolt. Marie is born into royalty, she lives, she marries, she gives birth, and then she dies. And that’s all there is to it.