Eric D. Snider May 10, 2012
Sacha Baron Cohen’s HBO series Da Ali G Show had already won my affection and admiration when it was announced that one of the show’s characters — cheerfully ignorant Kazakhstani TV personality Borat — would get his own American film. (An Ali G movie was released in Europe in 2002 and performed moderately well, but it didn’t play in U.S. theaters.) There was something truly daring about Baron Cohen’s gonzo style of comedy, which required him to stay in character while surrounded by people who didn’t know he was in character at all. Borat, with his unassuming racism, anti-semitism, and general backwardness, was my favorite S.B.C. creation.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan blew me away with its fearless taboo-nudging and good old-fashioned fish-out-of-water comedy. The now-infamous naked fight in the hotel had me in such hysterics that I was sliding out of my seat: I was almost literally ROFL. (I remember popping into a showing of the film sometime during its run, while I was waiting for another movie to start, just to see the audience reaction to that scene. It was magnificent.) The way the film held a mirror up to American society also intrigued me, as I noted in my gushing review…
What I said then: “There are so many brilliant things about Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan that I don’t even know where to start. It’s breathtakingly funny, and I mean that during some scenes I literally laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. But more than that, it’s one of the most astute satires of American culture that I’ve ever seen…. The film’s most sparkling asset … is the way it uses the fictional Borat and his fictional bigotry to bring out the real bigotry in real people…. I don’t take any of this as an anti-American screed, though. I doubt Baron Cohen would be surprised to find people like this in his native England, too. Borat has an infectious love for America, and I get the feeling it’s only slightly sarcastic on the part of the filmmakers. It’s scathing satire, audacious, ridiculous and screamingly riotous — but it’s not mean-spirited. It’s just funny. Good heavens, is it ever funny.” Grade: A [Read the whole review.]
(Critical aside: Few things are as difficult for me as reviewing a movie that I think is really funny. There are only so many different ways of saying “this movie is funny,” and some of the words — “uproarious,” “hysterical,” “riotous,” “side-splitting” — have been overused by hack critics to the point that the rest of us are wary of using them at all.)
Borat got overwhelmingly positive reviews (91% at Rotten Tomatoes) and made a shload of money. Sacha Baron Cohen appeared in character everywhere (everywhere) for a while, giving people who like to endlessly quote movie characters a new movie character to endlessly quote. People who’d been unwitting subjects of mockery in the film came out against it, revealing that certain elements were more staged than they appeared to be. It wasn’t long before Borat wore out his welcome.
But how would the movie hold up?
The re-viewing: I said in 2006 that the movie’s “most sparkling asset” was its use of Borat’s fictional bigotry to bring out regular people’s real bigotry. Curiously, I had almost the opposite opinion after a second viewing. That aspect of the movie feels weak and unremarkable — and, I might add, not especially abundant.
There are only three significant examples of it, all cited in my original review: the man who agrees with Borat that gays should be hanged; the drunken frat boys who say appalling things about women; and the Alabama dinner party that falls apart when Borat invites a black woman to join them. The frat boys, we later found out, were selected from a larger group and were provided alcohol (though their awful statements are, nonetheless, their own), and on second viewing it seems like the dinner party was ruined by Borat’s persistent shenanigans, not by the race of his guest. (The man who said gays should be hanged, well, that’s on him.)
Just about every other instance of someone behaving in a boorish manner is the direct result of Borat goading them into it. Sure those New Yorkers threatened to beat Borat up — after he accosted them in the street and tried to kiss them. That doesn’t mean these interactions aren’t funny sometimes, just that they don’t have any real satiric purpose.
What made me laugh the most this time around wasn’t the improvised scenarios with innocent bystanders but the scripted material. The screenplay — the Oscar-nominated screenplay! — is full of phrases that can only have been the result of writers trying to out-do one another for head-shaking offensiveness. The dialogue ranges from silly (Borat calls a woman’s bathing suit “water panties”) to brutally juvenile (he calls a butch lesbian a man, and an African American politician a “genuine chocolate face”). The character’s ongoing hatred of Jews, gypsies, and Uzbekistanis is so relentless and over-the-top that I don’t see how any real Jews, gypsies, or Uzbekistanis could be offended.
The idea, of course, is to make us laugh at the absurdity of bigotry. Borat is ignorant — and look at what a buffoon he is! When the movie stays on that course, it works very well. (It’s on shakier ground when it tries to hold the mirror up to the rest of us, as discussed earlier.) As a comedy nerd, I’m still in awe of Baron Cohen and co-star Ken Davitian’s fearlessness and commitment in carrying out so much nonsense in full view of people who didn’t know they were actors. That naked hotel fight loses some of its laugh-out-loud quality on repeat viewings, but it remains, you’ll pardon the expression, a ballsy stunt.
Do I still love this movie? Not quite, but I haven’t soured on it either, like I was afraid I might. Borat is a winning character, performed with enthusiasm and given a lot of funny things to say. Even if some of the “taboo” humor feels more intentionally button-pushy than it did at first, it still makes me laugh. Yeah, your douchey guy friends used the “sleeve of wizard” line too often, but it’s a good line. Grade: B
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