Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive crude and sexual humor, graphic nudity and language
Running time: 84 min.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Bob Barr (cameo), Alan Keyes (cameo), Pamela Anderson (cameo)
Director: Larry Charles
Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer
Review published November 6, 2006
Borat Sagdiyev is the creation of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (Talladega Nights, Madagascar), one of many personas he developed over the years, appearing most often on his television program, "Da Ali G Show". The premise of the character, and of the show in general, is that the comedian interviews unsuspecting individuals (or does funny things in public), and the reactions he gets are often genuine and mostly unscripted, which makes them hilarious. Essentially, Borat comes across as a well-meaning foreigner unfamiliar with the customs of the country he is in (the UK and USA, usually), and often says things about his own culture in Kazakhstan (often anti-Semitic or politically incorrect) that make the interviewee uncomfortable and sometimes agitated. Other times he elicits a reaction in those interviewed -- some who end up agreeing with Borat's racist, sexist, or intolerant views -- that gets them to state things they might not otherwise state to a local or national journalist, as they think that it will only get play in Borat's home country.
This film version mostly follows the same improvisational format of the television segments, although there are some scripted moments to form the backbone of the storyline (mockumentary style), with minor plot elements to give the story a "road trip" vibe. The gist of it is that Borat travels to the United States to see what is the greatest country in the world. When he sees American television for the first time, he is smitten by Pamela Anderson's (Barb Wire, Scary Movie 3) visage while watching the TV show "Baywatch", and is compelled to travel across the country to California to meet this woman of his dreams. Along the way, he has a few stops, including Congress, a rodeo, a gun store, an antique shop, a church, and other places wild and wacky in between, where he interviews many unsuspecting individuals on a variety of humor-tinged subjects.
Borat succeeds largely because it is funny. While it's true that there may be certain groups that will be offended by the content of the film (most risk-taking ventures tend to upset some segment or other), if you can see beneath the obvious oafish viewpoints of the main character and the rest of his brethren, you will see that, if anything, Cohen is really sending up the United States itself. The most controversial moments don't come from the mouth of Borat, but from (presumably) real-life people, like the man at the rodeo who would like to abolish all homosexuals, the misogynistic trio of young guys who think of women as only good for sex, or a crowd of Midwesterners that applaud when Borat baits them into cheering for the wiping out of the Iraqi people before he sings his version of the National Anthem. Of course, people from Kazakhstan have voiced outrage at the depiction of their country and the views of the people who live there.
When Borat displays the unscripted material playing off of real people's ignorance, the film is at its funniest. It doesn't always play in this mode, and when the film engages in obvious fiction, it is hit and miss. The squabble between Borat and his companion, Azamat, results in one hilarious scene where the men wrestle naked, but the Pamela Anderson quest is barely snicker-worthy, as is much of the footage of Borat's home life. However, these scenes are a healthy respite from the many laugh-out-loud moments, so it's hard to gripe too much, when there are as many genuinely clever laughs to be had in watching Borat as in any Hollywood comedy in recent memory.
Fans of "Da Ali G Show" will be mostly familiar with how the film plays out, probably loving it, but still able to keep perspective that it's an idea that he's been doing for a while now. Those who are uninitiated to the Borat shtick might actually go overboard in the praise of the film itself, which I will concede is very funny, but it's really the fruition of many years of development, not something concocted solely out of the blue from scratch. It's also the kind of movie that probably is funniest the first time through, when things are freshest and most vibrant (and most shocking), but there are enough classic bits of comedy to merit keeping a space for it in many viewers' DVD collection (chapter selection will be most appreciated).
I won't go so far as others in proclaiming that Borat is the best comedy of all time, or even of 2006 for that matter, as they are obviously judging it more as a titillating laugh-inducer than as a fully-realized, ingenuously intricate work of a true master. However, Cohen's grasp of the character is remarkably deep, and as a chronicle of some of the pockets of ignorance that still are very much a part of many communities in America, it's sometimes a bit scary to think that people are out there with such views, especially ones that openly espouse them in front of a "news" camera. While the people of Kazakhstan may be unsettled with how they are portrayed in a fictional form to the world, it's more unnerving to know that the world is seeing REAL people in the United States in an even more unfavorable light. Watch it and laugh, but let's also hope that viewers around the world won't form prejudices of their own in either case due to the stereotypical views presented in the movie, both real and contrived.
©2006 Vince Leo