Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Borat Sagdiyev, a good natured but bigoted and befuddled Kazakhstani journalist, is sent to the U.S. with his pudgy producer Azamat, to make a documentary on this, the greatest country in the world.  Borat falls in love with Pamala Anderson after seeing an episode of Bay Watch, and alters their plans so he can travel to California to marry her.   On their journey, they meet an odd collection of Americans, most of whom cast the nation in a bad light.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (here after known as Borat) is a movie that divides viewers.  You’ll either love it or hate it.  There’s no in-between.  Saying that, I thought it was OK.  Yup, I’m in-between.  So much for for that either-or theory.

For anyone who’s managed to miss the media blitz (I salute you), Borat is one of several alter egos created by British comic Sacha Baron Cohen.  Like his most famous character (before the previously stated blitz), rapper Ali G, Borat is a complete innocent and buffoon.  Dressed in a shaggy suit and bearing a porn star mustache, Borat is a star in a fictional Kazakhstan, where incest is common, prostitutes hold up their awards proudly, and the “Running of the Jew” is a national event.  The government of the real Kazakhstan has found little to smile about in this portrayal and has lodged protests; if the leadership thought that would have any effect, then they are as naive as Borat.  Cohen’s main gag is to interview people who are unaware that it’s a joke, and place them in a position where they either make fools of themselves, or display their darker sides.

The film is a mixture of biting satire, wit, and gross-out humor.  It is also a mixture of improbable, scripted, character bits and unscripted encounters.  I can’t tell how much of the unscripted “Real-TV” material actually is real.  The whole thing has a Candid Camera feel about it, which is good or bad, depending on how your response to the old show.  I get bored.  The problem is real people aren’t that funny.  That’s why writers exist.  Just watching someone react to an unusual situation is generally pretty drab (wow, people are uncomfortable with a nude man in an elevator; how unexpected!).  Numerous times we’re shown individuals squirming when Borat kisses them as a greeting.  What’s worse than a Candid Camera moment is one that cheats, where the mark knows what’s going on or at least has a clue, and those are everywhere in Borat.  But it works, even with the shadow that it all could be a con on the viewer, when Cohen exposes the seething hatred, cruelty, and fear that lies just under the surface of too many, hidden, sometimes poorly, by social training.  So, when the rodeo attendee agrees that hanging homosexuals is a great idea, or when the frat boys declare that the country would be better off with slavery, or when the car salesman assures Borat that a Hummer wouldn’t have to be going very fast to kill a gypsy, it is simultaneously funny and tragic.  These are great moments that deflate anyone feeling too proud of our civilization.

Of course these revelations are rare.  More often we see people trying to correct Borat’s mistaken impressions, which fits better in Cohen’s normal, short TV skit format.  The scripted stuff is rarely of interest.  It starts well as Borat shows us his village, pointing out the well armed kindergarteners and the town rapist (“Naughty naughty”), but degenerates into a series of homosexual site gags, with Borat’s producer using a hair drier on his pubic hair and the two engaging in a nude wrestling match.  If you are horrified by the notion of one man’s genitals dangling in front of another man’s face, or, I suppose, if you are excited by it, then this is going to be hysterical for you.

Most of Borat‘s religious references focus on the Kazakhstani’s fear of the evil, horned Jew.  The film isn’t anti-Semitic, as is occasionally claimed by people who don’t understand it (Cohen is Jewish), nor is it making a strong religious statement.  “Jew” is used in an ethnic sense, and allows Cohen to mock racism.

But there is an interesting churchly moment, depending on how much was staged.  Borat stumbles upon a Pentecostal service, filled with the absurdity of believers babbling in tongues and stating some traditional, but still frightening views:

We’re a Christian nation now.  We were a Christian nation in the beginning.  And we’ll always be a Christian nation until the good Lord returns.

I didn’t evolve from a monkey.  I didn’t used to be a tadpole.  I is what I is.

Borat is healed by the power of Jesus, convulsing and fainting among people who actually think that kind of thing happens, however, the Pentecostals seem to understand what’s going on and are playing along.  Since they signed releases OKing their appearance in the film, it’s hard to believe that we’re seeing any genuine behavior.

Borat is clever and knows it.  It is also tiring.  Picking up a copy of Da Ali G Show DVD to watch in small doses is a better way to go then plopping down your dollars at the Cineplex (unless you have a lot of free dollars) .  However, the film does leave you with an inspiring image.  Borat has brought Christianity to his village, and the Running of the Jew has been replaced by…  Well, let’s just say the Running of the Jew was preferable.