Borat, subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, arrives with more buildup and controversy than most comedies these days. Between Entertainment Weekly questioning whether it is the funniest movie ever made to Kazakhstani officials denouncing the entire project, the PR, both good and bad, couldn’t be better for this renegade comedy. It reminds me of Snakes on a Plane.
But is Borat one of the few positive exceptions to the hype machine? In most ways, yes. Sacha Baron Cohen so seamlessly transforms into the strangely lovable Kazakhstani that one can’t help but be engrossed and fascinated by his adventures in America. On second thought, adventures would be an understatement. What truly makes the film work is how it exposes the bigotry and intolerance in this country. Sure, we are doubled over with laughter considering the situations Borat finds himself in, but deep down most discerning viewers will come away disturbed, possibly ashamed. It’s funny how comedy works sometimes.
For those not in the Cohen loop, Borat is his Kazakhstani TV personality. As the film opens we meet the citizens of his native land, including his forty-something mother who looks to be about eighty. In the blink of an eye he finds himself and co-worker Azamat (Davitian) traveling to America to learn about the culture for their TV program. Initially starting out in New York City, Borat quickly becomes impatient. After falling in love at first sight with Pamela Anderson’s character of CJ while watching Baywatch, Borat becomes determined to make it to California to marry her. Thus begins a cross-country journey of strange situations, endless bigotry, and a hotel scene that is so wrong it must be seen to be believed.
Watching the film, I realized early on that if Cohen didn’t have such perfect comic timing, this film could have been a train wreck of catastrophic proportions. The movie might be the finest example of uncomfortable comedy I’ve ever seen, as no creed, ethnicity, or sexual preference is omitted from Borat’s butchering. In our ultra-PC culture, this is sensitive territory, but Cohen nails nearly every scene, most of which are improvised on the spot. That is his genius.
As hard and often as I laughed, I couldn’t help but hang my head in shame as an old man proclaims that all gays should be hung at the gallows, a college student says that the return of slavery would be a good thing, and a crowd at a rodeo cheers on the idea of an all-out massacre of Arabs. It almost seems ironic that Kazakhstani officials feel the way they do when Americans come off almost entirely in poor light; intolerant, arrogant, and filled with hate.
Truly smart comedy is hard to come by these days, but Cohen has delivered a simultaneously uproarious and thought-provoking experience. Guilty laughs can often be the best, as we are forced to assess why we think something so obviously wrong can be so funny. Fearless, though at times repetitive, Cohen has set the bar high.
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Length: 84 Minutes
Rating: R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language.
Theatrical Release: November 3, 2006
Directed by: Larry Charles
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer. Story by Cohen, Hines, Baynham, & Todd Phillips.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson