For those of you who don’t have HBO, Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev is the creation of English standup comic Sacha Baron Cohen. Like his other characters from Da Ali G Show — the hip-hop clown Ali G and the bisexual fashionista Brüno — Borat is a ruse that allows a disguised Baron Cohen to interview unsuspecting politicians, celebrities, and ordinary citizens, asking them idiotic questions in the hopes of getting them to say something stupid. They often oblige him, and even more often call the cops on him or try to beat his ass. The film is probably Baron Cohen’s last such act; between this and his performance in Talladega Nights, he’s probably too famous to do this anymore.
The film follows Borat as he leaves Kazakhstan (in a tiny car pulled by oxen) on a mission to America to find out why it’s such a great country. He soon loses focus and becomes obsessed with marrying Pamela Anderson — he drives to L.A. from the East Coast so he can meet her and declare his love. Along the way, he picks up a bear, takes comedy lessons from a profoundly unfunny “humor coach,” and destroys a shelf of breakable items in a Dallas antique dealer’s shop that’s littered with pro-Confederate kitsch.
Characters like this aren’t new — Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd did similar stuff as those Czech brothers on Saturday Night Live. (Borat is one wild and crazy guy!) Baron Cohen mines predictable jokes from his character’s bad personal hygiene and bizarre attempts to be hip to American pop culture. Borat’s attitudes toward women and Jews are hideously backward, but he gets away with them because he’s so cheerful (hailing us with the greeting, “Jagshemash!”), and seems to bear genuine hatred only toward the people of neighboring Uzbekistan. He also gets away with it because we know Baron Cohen is Jewish in real life.
Those prejudices are the key to Borat’s act, as his interview subjects frequently reveal their own bigotry in the character’s seemingly sympathetic presence. You wish he had picked tougher marks than the middle Americans here. On Da Ali G Show, Baron Cohen targeted such supposedly enlightened people as New York actors and British academics. There was a great sketch where Borat got a Cambridge professor to say that women don’t think creatively. The film doesn’t have enough gotcha moments like that. Many of Borat’s subjects treat him with forbearance (the driving instructor in Iowa) or seem to get the joke (the tv weatherman in Florida). The likes of Rep. Bob Barr and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes fail to rise to the bait, and we’re left with everyone sitting around waiting for laughs that don’t come.
Then again, for every misfire, Borat draws blood elsewhere, like when he wins lusty applause from a Texas rodeo crowd by saying, “May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq!” He also hitchhikes with three frat brothers in a trailer who turn out to be some of the most loathsome specimens of humanity you could ever wish to not meet. They talk about how oppressed they are as white guys and advocate a return to slavery. (By the way, they attend the University of South Carolina. Go, Gamecocks, go — fight!)
Borat’s mockery also includes you, dear viewer. Sure, you may laugh at the hayseeds on the screen who don’t know crap about Kazakhstan, but how much do you know about the place? Compared to the other former Soviet republics, it’s actually relatively free and prosperous. It’s also a haven of religious tolerance, where Sunni Muslims, Russian Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and yes, Jews peacefully coexist. Odds are you don’t know this stuff even if you’re quite well-educated, and don’t give me too much credit for knowing it, either. I only looked it up a few days ago, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered if not for the film. If you buy into Borat’s depiction of his homeland as a place where people and livestock endure the same living conditions, you’re part of the joke.
In the end, Borat’s provocations are essentially self-fulfilling; going around acting like an ass isn’t a good way to catch people at their best. Limited as his antics are, though, they’re also undeniably funny. When a naked Borat and his equally naked producer (Ken Davitian) get into a fight that spills out of their hotel room and into a lobby filled with mortgage brokers, it’s as big a laugh as in any movie all year. (Borat later indignantly tells the producer, “My mustache still smells like your testes!”) While Borat’s satire of American ignorance occasionally falls flat, the movie will still raise laughs that will be heard in Astana.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen. Directed by Larry Charles. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, and Dan Mazer. Rated R.