(photo credit: AP)
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (In English, Hebrew and Armenian, with Hebrew titles)
Reality comedy (84 min.) R
You've read the hype about Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, in which Cambridge-educated Sacha Baron Cohen impersonates a clueless Kazakh reporter on a visit to America. But the truth is that although the film has some funny moments, they're not nearly enough to make up for the fact that Baron Cohen aims his considerable wit only at the world's easiest targets: clueless Eastern Europeans and clueless Middle Americans.
Watching the movie, which has its tedious spells and a few too many gross-outs for anyone over 14, I had time to wonder about several side issues raised after its US release: Mainly, how many of the Americans Borat encounters knew perfectly well they were participating in a comedy, and how many were being played? In the end, it isn't really important (other than to the frat boys and etiquette expert who are suing the producers, saying they were misled about the nature of the film), but what matters more is the lack of incisive satire.
Sure, Baron Cohen's fractured English ("Please, come and see my film. If it not success, I will be execute") is funny, and, for those in the know, the Hebrew he speaks when supposedly conversing in Kazakh is even funnier. But I found myself feeling a certain sympathy for all the polite, baffled Americans he baits, including the rodeo spectators (who cheer when he says he hopes America drinks the blood of all Iraqis) and the evangelicals who assure him that Jesus loves him.
That's not how Baron Cohen intends his audiences to react, of course. We're supposed to be in on the joke with him, laughing at crude Eastern Europeans who don't know how to use a toilet and guffawing over mid-Westerners and Texans who are polite to him no matter how outrageous he gets.
The feel-good message of this movie is supposed to be: We (the audience and Baron Cohen) are smart and they're dumb. The problem, though, is that Baron Cohen may not be as smart as he wants us to think he is; otherwise he would have gone after some riskier and more interesting targets. If he had, chances are he would have made a much funnier film.
Although lawsuits by uninformed interviewees have fueled the controversy surrounding Borat, the other issue raised by the film - whether audiences are in on the joke when Borat goes off on his anti-Semitic rants - is a trickier question. Of course Baron Cohen means to shock audiences with Borat's anti-Semitism ("Although Kazakhstan a glorious country, it have a problem, too: economic, social and Jew"), I did feel that he is trying - in what is perhaps the least arch and most heartfelt impulse behind the film - to show that only morons are anti-Semites
Paradoxically, in what could have been the film's most offensive moments, he manages to get laughs and be on the side of the angels, politically. The scene in which residents of his hometown destroy costumed figures representing Jews is merely silly. However, the sequence in which he and his producer/sidekick from Kazakhstan, Azamat (Ken Davitian) go to a bed-and-breakfast run by an elderly Jewish couple and shrink in terror at their hosts and the portraits of rabbis decorating the walls makes Baron Cohen's point most clearly.
But the ideology behind the film, such as it is, is merely an excuse for Baron Cohen to do what he does best: lose himself in a bizarre character and intimidate a few straight men. That's the routine he has perfected on his mock talk show, Da Ali G Show, in which he plays a kind of working-class white guy who plays at being a Jamaican hip-hop type. It was on this show that he introduced the character of Borat, who he has said in interviews is based on a Russian doctor he once met. But in Borat, as in his talk show and his previous Ali G movies, it's always Baron Cohen himself who is front and center. He's playing on the fact that audiences know he is university-educated and from a distinguished British Jewish family (the world-famous autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen is his cousin).
His smugness is often a turnoff, but as he baits all kinds of humorless foils, such as former Congressman Bob Barr, he does manage to elicit more laughs than I would have imagined possible, most of which have punchlines that can't be printed in a family newspaper. He never slips out of character, and his timing and creative malapropisms are superb. Although he owes a debt to Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd with their "wild and crazy guys" routine on Saturday Night Live 30 years ago, he takes it even further. The funniest and most original touch, from my vantage point, is having Borat and some of his Kazakh compatriots speak slangy Hebrew whenever they are not mangling the English language, which helps more than a little to mitigate the negative impact of Borat's anti-Semitic comments.
But the film is dragged down again and again when the filmmakers go dumb and dumber. The sex jokes may be politically incorrect and, because of that, many audiences apparently find them hilarious. To me, they were just another example of movie comedy going for the lowest common denominator, especially in the long scene in which Borat and the overweight Azamat wrestle nude. What's frustrating in Borat is that Baron Cohen clearly has the intelligence and education to write far more subtle satire than he has chosen to do here.
A line from a comedy that resembles Borat in some ways, This Is Spinal Tap, a "mockumentary" about another easy target (a pompous heavy-metal band) came to mind during the film: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
But while Baron Cohen is constantly walking that line, Borat, unlike Spinal Tap, leaves you with a sour feeling. The spectacle of seeing polite, well-meaning Americans mocked is not especially entertaining to begin with, and as the movie goes on, it wears thinner and thinner. And as for feeling superior to Kazakhstan's backward citizens, I left the screening, turned on the radio, and heard a public-service announcement aimed at discouraging drivers from hitting children and elderly pedestrians. The Hebrew radio spot could have come from the Borat soundtrack. The announcer's voice even sounded like Baron Cohen.