Director: Larry Charles
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson
MPAA Rating: (for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language)
Running Time: 1:24
Release Date: 11/3/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
It's been a while since I've laughed so hard at a film, and I'm only thinking of one scene as I write this. The rest of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (hereto forth Borat, because a title one word shy of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is just too much) is equally hilarious, discomforting, scary, and sickeningly enjoyable. This is not only the best comedy of the year; it may well be the best comedy in a decade. Hell, it might be the best comedy in one-score years. Maybe even one-score years plus a decade. Whatever the math, Borat stands apart from its rude, crude counterparts with the fact that most of its comic set pieces are real. The film is basically an extended record of Guerilla Theater with bits of shtick placed in between for coherency. It is based on a character from HBO's "Da Ali G Show," in which creator Sacha Baron Cohen interviews real people while in character as one of three unique personas to reveal the stupider and scarier side of the United States. There are some genuinely disconcerting things that average people say when the cameras are rolling and your interviewer doesn't seem to know his ass from a hole in the ground.
Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a Kazakh journalist living in the town of Kuzcek. We become acquainted with his town, from the mechanic/abortionist to his neighbor who is always trying to copy him (Borat's clock radio, though, is too expensive), and his family, from his sister, the number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan, to his mother, who, at 43, is the oldest person in town, to his wife, who threatens to snap off his genitals if he cheats on her. We witness some Kazakh customs, including Borat's coverage of the town's Running of the Jew festival. The Kazakhstan Ministry of Information has assigned him to go to the U.S. and A. to make a movie-film documenting our nation's progressive social policy and culture to help the Kazakh people create a better place to live. His assignment takes him and his producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) to New York City, where Borat will attempt to talk to everyday people and cultural experts to dissect customs for easy understanding for Kazakhs. While watching American television and finding out the joys of "Baywatch," he devises a new plan: find Pamela Anderson and make her his new wife. What happened to his old wife, I will leave you to discover.
There's an inherent problem reviewing films like this, where each new gag feels so inspired that to divulge any of them is unfair. There are so many inspired bits in the film, though, that a few revealed can't hurt too much. The format of the film has Borat and Azamat discussing the documentary and otherwise seeming fools as interludes in between each Happening. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the breaks featuring Borat and Azamat are equally funny to the improvised and "genuine" interviews. Director Larry Charles should be commended for keeping the tone consistent throughout the film, and Cohen and Ken Davitian are hilarious as the bickering couple. Although most of their scenes must be improvised (they converse in a created Kazakh language that mixes Hebrew and Polish spoken in a Russian dialect), the film credits four screenwriters (Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, and Dan Mazer) who do a fine job turning these scenes into transitions to keep the minimal plot moving. The genius of the film, though, rests with Cohen's Happenings, and it's appropriate that Borat's first stop is a humor coach. The entire film is a litmus test of humor for the audience. What's funny? What's over the line? Does it matter in the slightest?
The film is what is tritely called an equal opportunity offender, although after the exploration of Borat's hometown, the blame for offending rests almost entirely on his subjects. Borat is an anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist dolt, but the point is to show that pretty much everyone has their own prejudices—some of them scarier than others—and limits. Borat's comments are funny because they are in character, and we are in on the joke. His interviewees comments are frightening, because they are real and not in on the joke. Take a later example. Borat asks a gun dealer what the best gun for defending against Jews is. That's funny, but it's alarming that the dealer recommends two choices. A rodeo owner in Virginia welcomes Borat to sing the national anthem before the show, and in the middle of talking to him, says that he's hoping that homosexuality will be punishable by death, simply because Borat mentions that it's that way in Kazakhstan. When he finally addresses the crowd at the rodeo, we get a display of mob mentality, as Borat cheers America's "war of terror" in Iraq. People will cheer at anything, apparently, because Borat's hope that George W. Bush will drink the blood of every Iraqi man, woman, and child gets a terrifyingly rousing reception. A group of frat boys later say it's a shame that slavery is no longer legal in the U.S.
The other group of Happenings investigates how far people can be duped. Former U.S. Representative Bob Barr gets a surprise in the form of cheese made by Borat's wife, and we get to watch former presidential and senatorial candidate Alan Keyes squirm (always fun) at Borat's description of his encounters at the Washington, D.C. Gay Pride Parade. When he attends a dinner party in the South, Borat goes against every lesson he learns about etiquette, and the hosts and guests of the party try their best to be pleasant. Even his presentation of and questioning of what to do with the remains from his trip to the restroom isn't enough to get him kicked out. In the film's most hilarious scene, Borat and Azamat get into a fight, and it moves into a convention in the hotel's ball room. I will not reveal the details of the fight, but I will say it is the funniest fight ever filmed. Throughout the madness, Cohen's dedication to his character is simply awe-inspiring. Whether he's talking to political figures, getting drunk with frat boys, or degrading veteran feminists, Cohen is always on, always in character, and always hysterical. I hate talking on such pointless terms as the following, but if Cohen does not get an Oscar nomination for this performance, it will be one of the worst oversights in recent Academy history.
Along with a multitude of quotable passages (and quotable only in certain circles, mind you), a question lingers. Is any of this staged? The final celebrity encounter would easily be considered assault by California state law. So does Cohen go all out, and does Borat Sagdiyev have criminal charges? Or is she a really good sport and the occurrence is more a Happening for those present? Whatever the case may be, the making-of documentary of Borat has the potential to be great as well. And it is going to be tons of fun to follow the lawsuits that will inevitably follow.
Note: As of this writing, two of the three fraternity boys have filed suit against Twentieth Century Fox. Apparently, they really thought Cohen was a Kazakh journalist, and the movie would only be seen in Kazakhstan. Yes, these lawsuits are going to be a riot.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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