Directed by: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson
OK, let's put this into perspective, shall we? Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (hereafter, only referred to as Borat, thank goodness) is not the funniest movie ever made. It is not an instant classic of the genre. It is not the most subversive film ever made. It is not the most wonderfully original concept since Coca-Cola invented the six-pack. And no matter how many Sacha Baron Cohen fans (most of whom couldn't have even seen the movie, but all of whom must have a lot of spare time) pile onto every critic who raises a dissenting voice on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site, it's not going to turn into a cornerstone of 21st century art.
What it is is a surprisingly successful (most of the time) elaboration on a fairly simple sketch idea -- one that is often subversive and generally very funny.
For those out of the loop, the premise has Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen), a Kazakhstan TV anchor, going to America to film a documentary that is supposed to help bring modern civilization to his somewhat unenlightened nation. It appears that the country could possibly stand a little enlightenment since the one thing we see Borat cover on local television is the annual "Running of the Jew" -- in which people flee from oncoming "Jews" (in large papier-mache heads of considerable grotesqueness). The problem is that Borat -- and his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian, S.W.A.T.) -- are none too bright and enlightened themselves.
The idea in a nutshell is a cross between Joseph McGrath's The Magic Christian (1969) and Allen Funt's Candid Camera TV series. In The Magic Christian, Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr -- Sellers as the world's richest eccentric and Starr as his adopted son -- engineer a variety of social outrages to put on, horrify and expose the hypocrisy of the public. Borat takes a similar but simpler approach and makes it at least partly real by ensnaring the real public in the scheme -- some of the time.
The results have the ill-spoken Borat saying all the wrong things in all the wrong places for comedic effect (e.g., telling a group of feminists that scientists in Kazakhstan have proved that women have brains "the size of a squirrel"). Borat's supposed background affords the built-in excuse for him not only mangling English, but for having odd customs (not limited to traveling with a chicken in his suitcase) and more than a few dubious ideas involving women, gays, Jews, gypsies, etc. That's really all there is to it, despite a plot contrivance that forms the basis for most of the action when Borat discovers Pamela Anderson in Baywatch on his hotel TV and decides to go to California to marry her.
When the movie doesn't really work, its 82-minute running time ensures that before long it will work again. Even one scene that is more distasteful than actually funny -- the nude wrestling match between Borat and Azamat that ensues after Borat catches his producer having a "hand party" over a Baywatch magazine -- becomes worthwhile when the duo crash a convention of mortgage brokers. A few scenes -- like the pointless visit to an antique shop -- fall pretty flat. Other scenes -- a ride in a motor home with some vile, moronic frat boys and a sequence at a Pentecostal church -- work as creepy forays into sociology, but are more disturbing than funny. But when it's at its best, Borat is indeed subversive and at least close to brilliant -- less because of what it says about Borat than because of what it says about us.
On more than one occasion the question that keeps niggling away if you bother to think about the film is just how much of this is real in the sense of the film's unwary victims and how much of it is completely staged. Judging by news items, it's safe to assume that the feminists are real, and so is the hapless comedy expert who tries to explain humor to Borat. In the film's most notorious segment -- the one that climaxes with Borat singing the Kazakhstan national anthem to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner" at a rodeo -- it seems clear that the man who expresses raging xenophobic and homophobic views (to the extent of talking about exterminating gays) is real.
It's less clear, however, how much of the rodeo audience reaction to Borat is manipulated by cutting and overdubbing. Does the crowd really cheer wildly at Borat's views on "America's War of Terror" bombing Iraq out of existence and his desire to see George W. Bush drinking "the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq," or is this manufactured by Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles? That's a question worth asking, but it's equally worth asking if the scene is any less valid if it was manipulated. The point is the same: It's this wildly inappropriate foreigner holding up a mirror to ourselves.
The results are funny, yet deeply unsettling -- not in the least because Borat has some excuse, but what's ours? That's the beauty of the film. It makes you laugh, but won't let you off the hook while it does. Rated R for pervasive, strong, crude and sexual content including graphic nudity and language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke