A film review by Craig J. Koban
Cultural Learnings of
America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
2006, R, 82 mins.
Borat Sagdiyev: Sacha Baron
Cohen / Azamat: Ken Vavitian / Pamela Anderson: Herself
Borat Sagdiyev: Sacha Baron
Cohen / Azamat: Ken Vavitian / Pamela Anderson: Herself
"My country send me to United States to make movie-film. Please, come and see my film. If it not success, I will be execute.”
in trailer for BORAT
Borat Sagdiyev seems like a typical, red-blooded Kazakhstanian.
He’s soft-spoken, honest, and forthright. He has many friends, likes Disco dancing, and his sister is the Number 4 prostitute in the entire country. He is also a TV personality for his homeland, reporting on all things underdeveloped, lacklustre, and overwhelmingly non-progressive. He has a large family and a loving wife that is so physically intimidating and domineering that she threatens to “break his cock” if he ever becomes unfaithful. Borat is also a staunch and faithful patriot to his home country. Oh, he also is afraid of Jews. He thinks they will kill him in his sleep. At one point he states, "Although Kazakhstan a glorious country, it have a problem, too: economic, social and Jew.”
To quote its full title – BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN is a very funny film. Even the title reminds one of other past satires – like DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB – and how their intentionally long-winded titles seem in on the joke. Is BORAT, though, one of the "funniest films of all-time" as proclaimed by one entertainment magazine that shall remain nameless (ahem, Entertainment Weekly)?
Not really. I certainly laughed fuller and harder during early Mel Brooks comedies like THE PRODUCERS, as well as during the first truly successful spoof films like AIRPLANE!. Dudley Moore's performance in the original ARTHUR remains one of most hilarious that I've seen. A few of the early films of The Farrelly Brothers were gut-wrenching. Yet, BORAT deserves very worthy accommodation as being on a very short list of some of the funniest films of the last few years (two of the others being THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN and TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY). In short, those who have been reading the film’s massive advance press may be setting themselves up for disappointment. Surely, the film is not the most amusing film of all-time, but it is an unapologetic riot and easily the best comedy of 2006.
Beyond its obvious sight gags and scatological humor, BORAT is an effortlessly masterful social satire. The film does not owe its existence to mainstream contemporary comedies as much as it does classic mockumentaries. It’s a thoughtful and pointed bit of commentary on the human condition mixed in with some incredibly blue material. In reality, think Jonathon Swift meets THIS IS SPINAL TAP meets CANDID CAMERA meets TOM GREEN meets MICHAEL MOORE and you have BORAT. Okay, so there are a lot of ingredients in this comedic cake, but it is to Sacha Baron Cohen’s ultimate credit that he is able to pull it all of so gloriously.
More than anything, BORAT emerges as a film that gives the British (and Jewish) comedian a chance to monopolize on one of his popular characters from HBO TV’s DA ALI G. SHOW. The character originated in short comedic set pieces on the satirical British TV show THE 11 O’CLOCK SHOW in 1998. He’s a fish incredibly removed out of water that engages on a public tour of America to point out valuable life lessens that his socially backward people back home can learn. Furthermore, Borat seems to constantly battle with the "Jew menace" that his countrymen face. That is why his Ministry of Information has decided to send him to the “U S and A” – his self-proclaimed “greatest country in the world” – to learn lessons for Kazakhstan. He targets New York in particular. Why? In his mind, there are "less Jews there." He also is highly sensitive when it comes to dealing with The Big Apple’s recent bout with terrorists. “We decided to not take airplane should the Jews repeat their attack of 9/11,” he tells us.
Okay, is anti-Semitic humor ever funny or legitimate? Of course, if handled properly. Mel Brooks successfully lampooned Hitler and Nazism with his musical within a film called “SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER.” Ditto for screen legends like Charlie Chaplin who achieved similar satiric greatness with his GREAT DICTATOR. Yet, BORAT seems to have really hit some people – and countries – below the belt in painful ways. Aside from its anti-Semitism, the film has been lambasted for its portrayal of Kazakhstan and its people. What some people forget to realize is that this is a work of satire, not a legitimate or realistic portrait of Borat's homeland.
Yes, Borat’s Kazakhstan looks like a country of perpetual trailer park trash, but people read too much between these comedic lines. I am sure that the real Kazakhstan is not like BORAT's Kazakhstan. Furthermore, I am not sure how anyone could take offence to the film because it never takes itself seriously with its portrayals. I can't think of one person (myself included) that could readily locate Kazakhstan on a map, let alone know precisely what its culture is like. It would be no different if an idiotic Ukrainian from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan went to America on a “Make Benefit” mission. C’mon, how many of you out there can locate Saskatchewan on a map, let alone trust a film like that to be the definitive portrait of all Saskatchewanians?
BORAT is paradoxically a work that has fuelled a lot peoples’ criticisms about its racist content. Huh? Any serious and legitimate claims that the film is inflammatory and potentially damaging should be deflected by the fact that Borat is a complete and utter imbecile. How anyone with the power of free thought could take any of his rants sincerely is beyond me. Borat is a fool; a spectacular moron in the same mould as Inspector Clouseau. That character called his Chinese butler his “yellow friend,” but not because he was a malicious and mean spirited man. He was an ignoramus and a bumbling buffoon who had no clue how clueless he was. That’s what made Seller’s creation and Coen’s work as Borat so oddly appealing. Both are cartoonish figures that are astronomically naive and ignorant. It is their very ignorance and stupidity that makes them funny, not what they actual say, which is oftentimes inflammatory.
More than anything, Borat is a figure that breeds more tolerance and acceptance in other people. He also reflects the notion that only idiots are racists. In terms of dumb bigots, Borat takes the cake. He is horrifically fearful of Jews, despite never having actually seen one, nor is he able to identify one if he met one in public. He is also chronically homophobic, despite not being able to spot a gay man from a mile away, nor realizing when he has engaged in a homoerotic act. During one of the film’s truly hilarious sequences, he visits New York’s gay pride parade and invites a few men back to his hotel for the night. He later tells someone what a very nice time he had. When that person sees the wholes in his story and explains to him that he spent the night performing sexual acts with gay men, Borat is shocked and appalled. “You mean to tell me,” he responds, “that the person that put plastic fist in my anus is homosexual?”
Borat’s monumental tunnel vision and ingenuousness grows even larger as the film progresses. Accompanied by his documentary producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), Borat’s quest takes him all over the nation on a cross-country trip in a run down ice cream truck (he wanted a Hummer from the dealer, but he was soon told that six hundred dollars would not get him a “pussy magnet” that is the Hummer). He originally wanted to just film in New York, but fate stepped in. While watching TV one night in his hotel room he glimpses Pamela Anderson on a re-run of Baywatch. To him, she is a golden goddess and he must – come hell or high water – find her and marry her. Thus begins his quest, which takes him to Washington to Atlanta through the Southern US to Dallas and finally to an autograph signing involving Anderson herself. Incredible hilarity ensues with each of his stops on his tour.
Take one episode, for instance, where he agrees to address a capacity crowd at a rodeo and sing the US anthem. The crowd is filled with tough southern folk, as is the case with a Rodeo promoter who candidly shares Borat’s views that homosexuals should all be “hung.” Anyway, Borat dresses up in western garb and tries to appease the crowd by saying things like, “We support your war of terror," and, "May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!” With each increasingly grandiose statement, the rodeo crowd starts to believe that this guy is not a typical Kazakhstanian.
Consider another sequence that involves Borat visiting an etiquette instructor followed by a suave and sophisticated night of dinning with some pompous elites. He has awkward table manners, to say the least. Firstly, he asks to be excused to go to the washroom and then comes back with a plastic bag filled with his feces and asks where he should put it. Then, without his dinner companions knowing, he calls a skanky prostitute to be his date for the evening. The snobby crowd is dismayed, even more so considering that they once believed that Borat could be saved from his low-grade cultural upbringing and become “Americanized.”
Perhaps one of the more inspired and funny bits occurs when Borat and his producer get caught in the hood when they fail to know where they are going one night. Borat approaches some black hoodlums and asks for directions. Now, Borat does not truly like what he calls “chocolate faced” people, but he thinks they are really cool with their vocabulary and clothing, which only serves to perpetuate these ghetto stereotypes. Later, he goes to a hotel looking for a room with his pants pulled down below his crotch all while calling the deskman every gangsta colloquialism in the book.
All of these scenes are delivered in a kind of guerrilla style of loose filmmaking, which is an incredible combination (I have read) of staged and real events. Watching the film unfold its hard to decipher what’s real and what's not. Surely Borat’s visit - for example - to a Pentecostal Christian service felt too real to be fixed (their willingness to save Borat’s soul while speaking in tongues is borderline and realistically creepy). Cohen is keeping his lips sealed, though, as to the real and unreal elements. He even goes as far as to not do interviews or press about the film unless he does so as Borat.
Beyond the satire, the film is irreproachable crude and vulgar at times. Like any courageous and daring comedian, Cohen seems committed to doing absolutely anything to get a laugh, no matter how vile and silly. Some of the humor and sight gags in the film reach a whole new level of tastelessness and bawdiness. Boundaries of political correctness and decency are not observed in the film. Some scenes have to be seen to be believed. One moment, for example, has Borat get into a nude wrestling match with his morbidly obese producer when they have a “tiff.” The scene stretches the realm of the R rating and that it has probably the only non-sexual, comedic money shot in film history. The fight between the two gets rough, tough, and all manners closely approximating pornographic. How BORAT walked past the MPAA without an NC-17 rating is beyond comprehension. The fact that it got a 14A by the Saskatchewan Film and Ratings board is equally stupefying.
Yes, the film is astoundingly vulgar and crude and it's very funny for its coarseness, but the real heart of the film’s comedy comes from Borat’s awkward interactions with typical Americans. Oftentimes, the film is rather sharp at how prejudices and bigoted views are revealed in the subtlest ways, often without provocation. Take the scene where Borat gets aboard an RV filled with traveling fratboys. These guys are drunken losers whose words indicate a strong demeaning attitude and hatred of women. Borat does not instill these ideas in the teens; they reveal these hateful words themselves. Also, there is one sly scene in New York where Borat wants to shake hands and kiss its citizens in a sign of friendship. The intolerance and verbal abuse he gets is noteworthy, if not mean and spiteful. When Borat attempts to approach one man, he flees and runs like hell from him, most likely thinking that he is a terrorist.
The point that the film is making – and yes, it has many – is that Borat is less offensive than some of the Yankees he comes across. He is an anti-Semite and comes form a country that has many preconceived racist views, but he’s such a product of abnormal stupidity that you almost want to forgive his rudeness. Many of the Americans he comes across are less intellectually bankrupt, but they also subtly reveal their own hurtful prejudices, like when the societal elites want to “Americanize” Borat or when the New Yorker runs away from him in a fit of paranoia...and so forth.
Perhaps the true irony of BORAT is that it has become such a target by governments as pure hate mongering. BORAT is not trying to perpetuate stereotypes; the character is merely revealing that they exist in contemporary America. The film makes his own country look bad, but the film is considerably more of a scathing condemnation of American ideals and customs. It’s funny that the Kazakh government has shunned Cohen and his film for “being a concoction of bad taste and ill manners which is incompatible with the ethics and civilized behaviour of Kazhakstan's people.”
The film also looks poised to be banned in Russia. Its Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography has told distributor 20th Century Fox that it will not grant permission for the "offensive" film to be shown. For a country that pigeonholes a smart and whimsical satire like BORAT in with works of cheap pornography is kind of alarming. The attitudes of the officials of Russia and Kazakhstan reveal their incredible predication for being humorless. Surely these people are bright enough to know comedy and satire when it is presented to them…right? Borat is simply too unintelligible and hopelessly clueless to be considered as a threat to anyone with a brain in their heads. You would have to be dumber than a bag of hammers to have Borat reinforce your own bigotry.
BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN is many things. It’s tasteless, vulgar, uncompromising and in-your-face with its politically incorrectness, grotesquely lewd, and awe-inspiringly outlandish. Yet, the film is also such a fearlessly mounted work of gut-busting social satire that highlights and celebrates Sasha Baron Cohen’s absolute commitment to do anything to make us chuckle. You’ll find yourself bowling over with laughter after the most shameless of exhibitionist stunts and sight gags, but the most rewarding and ambitious aspect of BORAT is how it manages to infuse some subtle social commentary throughout its proceedings. Borat is a bigot and misogynist, but his own narrow-minded and deluded spirit often reveals the shortcomings of others. For that, BORAT works as all great works of social satire do: They make you giggle and think about its material. To loosely quote the title character, “’BORAT’ is great funny movie-film that I liked much. It’s was very nice.”