"Borat" a fearless, hilarious high-wire act

by Eric Melin on November 2, 2006

in Print Reviews

Every now and then, a movie comes along that changes the rules. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is one of those movies.

We should have seen it coming. Reality-based humor just keeps getting more and more extreme. The simple pranks of TV’s long-running “Candid Camera” have finally morphed into the elaborate put-ons of “Punk’d,” while the gross-out toilet humor of “Jackass Number Two” rakes in over $70 million at the box office.

But to limit “Borat” to this category alone—given its considerable shock factor— would be to miss the point. Simply put, it is the most subversive and utterly fearless satire of cultural values since “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” whose lengthy title it mimics.

Borat does the Tomahawk Chop

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (who originated the character on HBO’s “Da Ali G Show”) plays Borat Sagdiyev, a sweetly enthusiastic journalist from Kazakhstan who shares his country’s deeply rooted prejudices, like sexism and an unreasonable fear of Jews. Along with his largely inept producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), Borat sets off across America to make a documentary. “Borat” raises all kinds of issues concerning film’s reflexivity as it continuously blurs the line between its fictional narrative, which features actors, and documentary-style sneak attacks on oblivious real people.

It helps that most Americans aren’t familiar with Kazakhstan , but whether or not the actual former Soviet republic is bigoted or backwards does not matter. (Except to the unamused Kazakh government, which recently took a 4-page ad out in the New York Times stating otherwise.) This is not a documentary about Kazakhstan. It is a razor-sharp satire of cultural ignorance that spares no one. Borat approaches his interviewees with a big smile and hilariously mangled English that reveals ironic meanings, like when he proudly tells a crowd of Americans at a rodeo that his country supports their “war of terror!”

Borat’s naïve sweetness is precisely what allows people to let their guard down. It is thrilling because we are in on the joke, and embarrassing because we recognize these traits in everyday people. There are two things that make the laughs in the movie so brutal. First, because Borat is a bigot he makes it seem “okay,” and the victims are unknowingly tricked into revealing their inner prejudices. Too bad Mel Gibson didn’t need Borat’s help.

Borat and Azamat high five!

Second, there is no moment of levity at the end of the prank like the big release that a “Punk’d” victim gets where he realizes it was all a hoax. Borat’s subjects never get the satisfaction of knowing it was a put-on, and one man just cruises blithely along, recommending which kind of gun would be best to shoot a Jew with. Can you imagine if Ashton Kutcher got celebrities to divulge their own personal discriminations and then aired it, never telling them it was a joke?

Cohen’s commitment to the character is scary, as he is always pushing to find people’s limits. This guerrilla-style filmmaking means that the whole crew must remain in character, which is probably a first for a Hollywood studio movie. However ridiculous it seems, it sets a new standard for acting when Cohen ‘s improvisation leads him into dangerous situations. In “Borat,” acting means maneuvering in character to get what you want out of people who aren’t completely aware of the stakes. The combination of unexpected outcomes and truly uncomfortable situations make “Borat” an equally funny and cringe-worthy movie.

The Anti-Defamation League is worried that Borat’s unhealthy anti-Semitism may be misunderstood by less “sophisticated” audiences. Making Borat such a likable bigot certainly raises questions, but because his fear of Jews is taken to a ridiculous level (he cries like a baby and cowers at the sight of a harmless old Jewish couple hosting him at a Bed & Breakfast), it illustrates just how much this kind of prejudice is rooted in ignorance.

V for Voluptuous

The same goes for Borat’s negativity towards homosexuality. It is a concept he doesn’t completely understand, as evidenced by the funniest scene in the film, which had me covering my eyes and laughing uncontrollably for at least five straight minutes, probably more!

Yes, the hype on this one is big. As such, it will be a grand social experiment on opening weekend in the theaters. I am going again just to see what the audience laughs at and what they don’t.

Will it be too uncomfortable?

Will the audience get it?

When will they decide he has gone too far and side with Borat’s victims?

Will people walk out?

The fact that this mercilessly funny film is based in reality makes a bigger statement about who we are as a country. How we react seeing it reflected back at us will be another experience entirely.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ YouTube 

Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: