As the many diehard fans of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen had hoped, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan includes sixty minutes of the most amusing comic stylings to hit the big screen this year. Unfortunately, the movie is a half-hour longer than that delightful hour, and at both its entrance and exit stumbles badly. When departing the theater, many viewers will be asking two questions: the expected “Didn’t you think that was hilariously funny?” and the more troublesome “Didn’t you think that was impossibly offensive?” Alas, Borat is both, with the latter failing to contribute to the former in the ways likely intended by Cohen and director Larry Charles.
It goes without saying that the best kind of comedy is that which engages our cultural conventions at their most sensitive points, and in many scenes of Borat the scabrously offensive material contributes to the general hilarity, both creating nervous tensions and allowing for the exposure of other hidden tensions present both in the film’s scenes and the moviegoing audience. When that combination works, it is a tribute to the writing and acting of Cohen, who seems to possess a comedic sixth sense for the hidden sensitivities of American culture, as well as the directorial choices of Larry Charles.
The paper-thin plot resembles the mockumentary style made most popular by Spinal Tap, but resurrected in recent years in more modest form by comedy shows such as Mr. Show, in which outrageous scenarios are treated in the most deadpan of fashions by the participants. An expansion of a recurring skit on Cohen’s Da Ali G Show, Borat stars the fictional television personality from Kazakhstan, Borat Sagdiyev, who has been sent to produce a documentary on American culture; in the process, he sees an episode of Baywatch on television and falls in love with well-endowed superstar Pamela Anderson. Determined to make her his wife (no happy event for her, we are led to believe), Borat tricks his producer Azamat into taking their documentary on the road in the hopes of eventually reaching Los Angeles and wedding the blissfully ignorant Pamela. Borat suddenly becomes a buddy comedy that is also equal parts Chaplinesque farce and Charles Kuralt gone horribly wrong.
Cohen’s Borat is endearingly clueless, and gains almost everywhere an initial acceptance from the ordinary people he meets (except, of course, on the New York subway). His initial welcome is followed only later by anger, misunderstanding, or simple exasperation. The unsuspecting people he meets forgive him his misogyny, his anti-Semitism, his sexual impropriety, because he’s just a simple foreigner who never had the chance to become as enlightened as Americans. Along the way, he meets drunken misogynist fratboys, cowboys espousing astoundingly racist beliefs, extraordinarily kind Jewish inn owners who unwittingly trigger Borat’s anti-Semitic anxieties and countless other interlocutors on this cross-country jaunt. Speaking an unintelligible mishmash of Eastern European languages intermixed with Hebrew (a Polish friend recognized literally dozens of Polish words strung throughout Borat’s speech) with Azamat, Borat communicates through broken English to everyone else, allowing simple misunderstanding and a low-level xenophobia to play a part in every scene.
Borat is endearingly clueless, and gains almost everywhere an initial acceptance from the ordinary people he meets (except, of course, on the New York subway). His initial welcome is followed only later by anger, misunderstanding, or simple exasperation. The unsuspecting people he meets forgive him his misogyny, his anti-Semitism, his sexual impropriety, because he’s just a simple foreigner who never had the chance to become as enlightened as Americans.
As with Cohen’s skits on Da AliG Show, the funniest (and often most painful) scenes are when Borat encounters and unwittingly exposes the cheery bigotries of America. His impassioned pro-America speech at a rodeo gains overwhelming applause that slowly diminishes when he shouts “may George Bush drink the blood of every Iraqi woman and child!” But it doesn’t die out completely; some people are still cheering lustily. Similarly, his visit to a gun store for the “best gun with which to kill a Jew” meets with casual acceptance from the store employee, whose only regret is that he can’t sell a foreigner a gun on the spot. These scenes and countless others play perfectly as political satire and as comic farce—the audience laughs but also cringes in embarrassment.
Less successful are the slapstick interludes that play almost as if Cohen and Charles suffered a crisis of confidence in their fictional character’s ability to carry an entire feature film. One such scene, in which the two main characters carry on a nude fight in and out of various public places, is so over-the-top in terms of its lurid camera angles that it seemed to last for hours.
Unfortunately, crude slapstick may be the film’s least troubling flaw when compared to the colossal blunder Cohen makes by including his supposed hometown in Kazakhstan in the film. The locals there are depicted as dirty, violent, callow brutes, as likely to participate gleefully in a pogrom as they are to purchase an iPod. In the HBO series, Cohen’s Borat has always been casually anti-Semitic, and he has regularly lampooned the ethnic sensibilities of his audiences, but cultural critics have in the past come to his defense because he himself is Jewish. In Borat, that excuse doesn’t work.
The character of Borat, as originally portrayed on television, didn’t need to be from Kazakhstan, because the whole joke depended on how easily he convinced Americans to behave stupidly: his segments featured an endless barrage of locals who would speak to him at the top of their lungs, treat him like an amusing pet, confide to him the most awful of personal prejudices, or ignore (or go along with) his own increasingly offensive statements and behavior in the interests of a sort of bland we-love-America bonhomie. Kazakhstan, in that sense, just stood for “foreigner,” and Borat was a simple rube from a place most Americans didn’t really know anything about. Starting with such a blank slate, he could tell Americans all sorts of lies with a straight face: ‘my wife is kept in a cage.’ ‘Horses can vote, but women can’t.’ ‘My sister is number four prostitute in all of country.’
This time around, however, a significant percentage of the ethnic humor is actually aimed directly at the fictional residents of Borat’s town in Kazakhstan, and human misery is played for cheap laughs: the women are loose, the men are rapists, the siblings are incestuous, the kids are disease-ridden and dirty. And the Jews, as expected, are the subject of vicious caricature and physical violence. Don’t worry, the reviewers tell us, it’s not really insulting if you’re in on the joke. But that leads logically to another more awful question: what about the crowds pouring in to see the film (Borat has already blown well past expected earnings) who are roaring with laughter at the squalid conditions of Kazakhstan, and the amoral brutality of the villagers projected here? Are they laughing because they, too, are in on the joke? God help us as a country if they’re not, if this is simply a post-ironic return to the leering cinematic exploitation of foreigners and minorities once common in American film.
It’s a sobering thought—one far too somber for a film so lighthearted in its better moments—but one which nonetheless distracts from what would otherwise be a real masterpiece of comic performance and political satire. Longtime fans of Borat look to him to explode our shared prejudices; more worrisome is the fear that he might help to reinforce them.