Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)



(director: Larry Charles; screenwriters: Sacha Baron Cohen/Anthony Hines/Peter Baynham/Dan Mazer/based on a story by Mr. Baron Cohen, Mr. Baynham, Mr. Hines and Todd Phillips, and a character created by Mr. Baron Cohen; cinematographers: Anthony Hardwick/Luke Geissbühler; editors: Peter Teschner/James Thomas; music: Erran Baron Cohen; cast: Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat Sagdiyev), Ken Davitian (Azamat), Luenell (Luenell); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sacha Baron Cohen/Jay Roach; 20th Century Fox; 2006)

“An outrageously crude slapstick comedy that is by the way heady and politically aware.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An outrageously crude slapstick comedy that is by the way heady and politically aware, which makes it a rare bird. It has the manic energy of a zany Andy Kaufman spoof that aims to offend everyone with its relentless assault on our sensibilities. It pushes the zany world-class jerk envelope further than Jerry Lewis ever did. Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) is the pushy native of a small impoverished village in the Central Asian country of Kazakhtan (shot in Romania) who comes to America to make a documentary to show the virtues of his country and learn about America. He plays a slobbish, overfriendly, overbearing, ignorant, misogynistic, male chauvinist pig, racist, homophobic, gypsy hating and rabid anti-Semite. He appears as a dexterous Chaplinesque figure whose heavy brush dark mustache is thought by some to make him look threatening like a Muslim terrorist. Director Larry Charles makes it the kind of ‘take no prisoners’ parody that has you either roaring with laughter in the aisle or walking out in disgust. The timing for such a crass comedy is just right, as it opens in this gloomy sixth year of W.’s failed administration and many Americans have lost track of how our country looks to outsiders and have forgotten how to laugh at themselves. Cohen is the British comic known in this country from the British HBO “Da Ali G Show” series transported to America, where he takes on the fake character identity of Ali G.

Borat is a Kazakh TV reporter who is shown introducing us to his family, neighbors and friends in his hometown, where he’s proud of his prostitute sister and that she’s open to incest (it’s interesting to note that the Kazakhi language he speaks is actually a colloquial modern Hebrew). He lands in NYC and gets rebuffed on the subway as he tries to introduce himself to the motley crew of passengers while doing his homestyle double-kiss routine on both male cheeks. While watching in his hotel room Pamela Anderson in a bikini in Baywatch, Borat gets the hots for her and she becomes his American dream. His producer for the documentary, Azamat (Ken Davitian), informs him that she lives in California and he insists that they go there. But he’s afraid to fly “in case the Jews repeated their attack of 9-11,” and takes driving lessons to buy a used ice cream truck to go cross-country. Before leaving the city he takes a dump in front of Trump Towers and jerks off in front of the display window of Victoria’s Secret. The two documentary filmmakers go on the road across America, mostly to the “red states,” and meet various foils on the way that include a humor consultant, a southern consultant on dinner party etiquette, a right-wing rodeo crowd where he first wins them over with his fervent support on the War of Terror and then flops while singing his country’s anthem (angering the American audience when he proclaims Kazakhstan is “the greatest country in the world”) to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a gay pride celebration where he wonders what it means to get a fist up his anus, a meeting with two moralizing conservative politicians (ex-Georgia Congressman Bob Barr and perennial losing Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes) who don’t realize until too late he’s goofing on them, a Texas antique dealer specializing in Confederate memorabilia to celebrate our country’s heritage, young black men into hip-hop styling, an overweight black prostitute he falls in love with when the Pamela thing backfires, a gun clerk whom he asks to show him the best gun to use on Jews and gets to see such a gun, a troubling scene where Borat incites the patrons of an Arizona bar to join him in singing a Kazakh folk song with the refrain “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” some drunken South Carolina white frat boys who give him a ride in their RV and who are just as bigoted as he is, a Pentecostal church revival meeting where he comes to Jesus in the presence of a Mississippi congressman and a state supreme court judge who proclaim America will always be a Christian country, and many other offensive short skits. The most outlandish bit is the wrestling in the nude between the hairy Borat and the excessively obese and hairy Azamat in their hotel room, a dispute spurred on over Azamat jerking off to a picture of Pamela. It culminates with them still nude in an elevator full of guests, running through the hotel lobby and then into a banquet hall packed for a businessmen convention.

Not all the material is as blatantly political as when Borat tells a cheering rodeo crowd, while dressed in an American flag shirt, that “We support your war of terror. … May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq.” It also includes many more conventional poop and smut jokes. But its most radical take is its daring onslaught of anti-Semitic jokes that exposes those parties not in on the joke as part of the problem and are the ones apt to bite at Borat’s ignorant comments and offer their own bigoted responses. When the laughing stops you realize that this was a documentary with real Americans, and no matter how bigoted a comment Borat made it became scary that he found no trouble finding someone who agreed with him. That alone tells us that this tasteless comedy also tells us something rotten about America we might not readily acknowledge (even if history tells us about the country’s long standing bigotry). The film lets on that bigotry is either latent in America’s collective unconscious or can easily be found in the everyday American attitude.

There’s a danger these bad taste ethnic jokes might be taken seriously and give rise to making anti-Semitism more overt and acceptable. The Anti-Defamation League has expressed concern about just that and passed on their concerns to Cohen, a supposedly observant Jew who believes that his comedy exposes many of the prejudices of the dominant Western culture that it hides behind its cultured civil “niceties” and therefore if faced has a better chance of being looked at and possibly eradicated. Cohen in interviews made the point that if it weren’t for the civil rights movement, we might not have taken such steps to legally try and gain justice for all. He therefore puts himself out as a risk taker and is willing to play with fire.

Though the pic doesn’t completely work (the filmmaking is at times as crude as the jokes), nevertheless, it does hit a raw nerve and is provocative. It’s a comedy that demands you get the joke or the joke could become something that backfires big time (one can’t be certain if you are not playing with dynamite with this one and might only legitimize an anti-Semitism that has been kept for the most part under the radar in this country).


REVIEWED ON 11/14/2006 GRADE: A-