Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Directed by Larry Charles. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Don Mazer. (2006, R, 84 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 3, 2006
Let us take a moment to sympathize with poor, misunderstood Kazakhstan. With less than two decades of post-Soviet liberty under their cardboard belt, as yet a tad unsteady on their pseudo-democratic feet, this newborn nation is already finding itself the butt of one of the most elaborate and ingeniously orchestrated pranks of all time. And like the inveterate new kid on the playground – scrawny, ill-kempt, and prone to self-defeating tantrums – Kazakhstan has opened its collective mouth and let out a wail in the form of a series of full-page and no doubt pricey advertisements/broadsides in no less than The New York Times. The cause of all this gnashing of Kazakhstani teeth? Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his comedic alter ego, the alleged Kazakh newsman Borat Sagdiyev. Woe unto those nations that cannot take a joke, fo they become more buttlike in the unlaughingness of their overreacts (as Borat would surely mangle the phrase). First unleashed on the world in a series of BBC comedic sketches on the Cambridge alumnus Cohen's Da Ali G Show and later picked up for domestic consumption by HBO, Borat is the ugly American (or Brit) from elsewhere: a clueless, gangly, mustachioed moron prone to anti-Semitic tirades so subversively over-the-top that the only serious reaction is giggles. This feature-length expansion of Cohen's deliciously ridiculous character accomplishes what decades of Soviet propaganda failed to do: It points out and underscores issues of race, religious intolerance, classism, and all manner of very American social ills by giving the culprits just enough rope to hang themselves by their own petards (and then some). On the face of it, Borat is a mockumentary. It follows the titular clod and his producer, Azamat (Davitian), from their backwater Kazakhstan hovels (where Borat lives with his sister, "the number four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan!") to America on an ostensible mission of discovery and cultural growth. Almost immediately, however, the lovesick Borat falls for the image of Pamela Anderson, and the film heads west with marriage on its mind. In between Borat's arrival in New York City and the end of his epic quest are some of the most fearless acts of transgressive comedy in years. Forever in character, Cohen wrangles invitations for Borat to poshly racist Southern dinner parties, meets with nonplussed feminists (where he compares the size of the female brain to that of a squirrel), wanders dazed and confused into a holy-rolling pentecostal megachurch, and scares the bejesus out of Baywatcher Anderson. This is shockingly blunt comedy and shockingly funny, too. Cohen and Davitian are utterly fearless, poking fun not only at Americans but at the stereotype of the foreign Other as well. As of last weekend, a massive intra-studio bidding war for Cohen's next film has erupted. Oddly, the Kazakhstan Ministry of Information has gone quiet. If they're biting their tongues as hard as I did, they're going to need stitches.