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Taking stupid seriously

It may look lowbrow, but embedded in the new generation of crass laughs is sly social commentary that's dangerously sharp.

October 15, 2006|Mark Olsen and John Horn | Special to The Times

STUPID has never looked so smart.

Dimwitted comedies have been making a killing at the ticket counter. "Talladega Nights" has grossed $147.9 million. "Jackass: Number Two" was a No. 1 box-office hit and has grossed $64.1 million. And there's a frenzy building for the upcoming "Borat," a travelogue by the titular Kazakh journalist.

But the reward isn't merely financial. A number of these seemingly lowbrow movies are surprisingly high-minded and have more on their agendas than just fart jokes: It's the difference between the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. "Borat" is ultimately a story about ignorance and racism, while "Talladega Nights" offers a sly sendup of NASCAR culture. Even though it received a stumblebum release, Mike Judge's "Idiocracy" scores more political points than a week's worth of "The Colbert Report."

These movies still try to satisfy the mass audience's appetite for physical, visceral comedy -- "Borat's" signature scene is an extended wrestling match between two naked men. But the films still manage to turn foolishness into pointed social commentary.

"I don't want to speak for my movies; you could say my movies are just completely silly and dumb, but in the case of 'Idiocracy' and 'Borat,' without a doubt there is a really subversive and sophisticated assault on American culture," says Adam McKay, director and co-writer of "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." "It's one thing to mess stuff up and break stuff, but [Borat] is really pointing out the ideology of America. It's one thing to break stuff and damage people's possessions, but when you start aiming at the ideology of America, that's dangerous comedy."

"Talladega Nights," written by McKay and Will Ferrell, finds the heart of contemporary America in the world of stock-car racing: The movie's champion driver is a fun-loving, hard-charging, star-spangled "doer" played by Ferrell with more than a touch of George W. Bush, who meets his nemesis in the guise of Sacha Baron Cohen (who also plays Borat) as a gay, espresso-sipping, jazz-loving, Camus-reading racer.

"As soon as we talked about doing a NASCAR movie and came up with the Ricky Bobby character, we realized the tension of it. We'd mention it to people and they'd have two responses, either 'I hate NASCAR' or 'NASCAR is awesome.' It was so polarizing right off the bat ... we were very aware we were going into this cultural hot zone, that this was the epicenter of red state culture," says McKay. "The living nightmare for a red state NASCAR driver would be a gay French driver."

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" follows a hopelessly unsophisticated television host as he makes his way across America. Shot in a run-and-gun style, the film shows Borat in a number of scenes where he encounters ordinary Americans.

As a consequence of Borat's naive but nonetheless leading questioning (the movie lists five screenwriters), these seemingly average citizens quickly and casually expose their own racism, homophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism. At one point, Borat asks a gun store salesman which weapon is best for killing Jews. Without missing a beat, the guy behind the counter reaches for a suitable hand gun.

"I think it's part of the genius of Sacha, his ability to bring that out in people through the innocence of the character. He created a character who is so naive and lovable that people want to teach him, want to show him things and help, and in doing so reveal themselves," says Todd Phillips, the director and co-writer of the recent "School for Scoundrels." (Phillips was the original director of "Borat" before exiting the project and receives a co-story credit on the final film, which was directed by Larry Charles.)

Meanwhile, writer-director Mike Judge's "Idiocracy" -- a comedy starring Luke Wilson as an average American who participates in the government's top-secret hibernation program only to wake up 500 years later -- attracted critical attention for its satirical portrayal of a distant future in which dumbing down has bottomed out. The film is an angry and disillusioned portrait of a world where nuance, subtlety and discourse have been swallowed by a lowest-common-denominator hegemony. (The era's most popular -- and Oscar-winning -- movie is called simply "Ass.")

Its studio, 20th Century Fox, didn't have a clue what to do with "Idiocracy" (Fox didn't preview the long-delayed movie for critics before releasing it with hardly any publicity or marketing support) and Judge, who co-wrote the script with Etan Cohen, declined interview requests. But critics and a small handful of moviegoers -- ticket sales totaled just $444,000 -- took notice.

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