Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Review
By Joe Lozito
Every once in a while a comedian comes along who takes comedy to another place. Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman immediately spring to mind. Both performers created unforgettable characters and had reputations for staying in their respective roles to the point of obsession. Recently, Sacha Baron Cohen started a campaign to bring his brand of guerilla comedy into the American cultural mainstream, and with his Borat character, he may have struck gold. I was never a huge fan of "Da Ali G Show" - I found that character particularly obvious and annoying. However, in "Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan", Mr. Cohen may have hit on a perfect hybrid of the idiocy of Mr. Sellers' Inspector Clouseau and the endearing foreignness of Mr. Kaufman's Latka.
Borat is, for lack of a better term, dangerously naïve. He steamrolls through America, first to make a documentary for his beloved home country of Kazakhstan (truly a country to be pitied after this movie), then on a personal quest to make Pamela Anderson his bride. That's more or less what passes for a plot in "Borat" and, thankfully, Mr. Cohen has enough uncomfortably brilliant satirical set-pieces up his sleeve to nearly sustain the premise. The film opens in Borat's hometown where he kisses his sister (the "#4 prostitute" in the country), waves goodbye to the town rapist and drives off in a horse-drawn car. There's nothing particularly funny about this setup, but Mr. Cohen is so completely invested in this character and the film - directed in high mockumentary style by comedy veteran Larry Charles - is so fast-paced, that it's almost impossible not to get caught up in the lunacy.
Borat's experiences in New York City are particularly obvious (guess what? They don't like to be touched), but it's the discovery of Ms. Anderson on an old "Baywatch" rerun that sets the plot in motion, sending Borat and his trusty companion Azamat (Ken Davitian, in a truly fearless performance) across this great land of ours.
Mr. Cohen and his team stick to the South, running afoul of all sorts of homophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny. It's here that the film reveals its brilliance. Borat is a buffoon with all those horrible qualities in abundance and he forms a sort of commiseration with those he meets, goosing those same traits out of them. Mr. Cohen is able to create situations which are uncomfortable not because of Borat's behavior, but because of the behavior of the unsuspecting Americans. Watch the gun store owner's quick response when Borat asks for the perfect gun to "protect against the Jews". Or the car salesman's response to a question about a Hummer's ability to kill pedestrians. Or the rodeo patron's idea of the American dream. Mr. Cohen's comedy is a lot more than poop jokes or naked male wrestling (though there's plenty of that); it is full-on social commentary at its most cringe-inducing.
Borat's interaction with the unsuspecting citizenry of this country is the crux of the film which is, really, a string of these bits. Mr. Cohen immediately disarms his opponents with Borat's all-consuming innocence. Like Mr. Sellers and Mr. Kaufman, this is more than a performance. Mr. Cohen inhabits this characters from all angles (he would only give press interviews for the film in character). It's tough to sustain a film based solely on a character like Borat and, occasionally the film goes flat. Not all the bits work (did we really need to see "The Running of the Jew"?) and some of them strain believability (surely the finale, among other things, was staged). By the end, you're eager to wrap things up. Along the way, though, "Borat" is a helluva ride.
Mr. Cohen would do well to learn a thing or two from Mr. Kaufman's career. While Borat doesn't have the tinge of menace that Mr. Kaufman's characters sometimes did, he lives or dies by his ability to catch his victims unawares. With this film's inevitable permeation into pop culture, Mr. Cohen will lose that luxury. Still, he has left us with this indelible time capsule - one man's open letter to "the U.S. and A". Nice.