"(R) Three and a half stars
If you’re an adventurous filmgoer, see Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as soon as it opens Friday. Don’t read the rest of this review, don’t read any other reviews and don’t let anyone tell you about it. Certain movies are best experienced if you go in cold and this is one of them.
I saw Borat about a month ago, before the hype machine shifted into high gear. All I knew was that the film was a comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen, the guy who played the French race car driver in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Cohen is a British comedian/actor who built a cult audience in America with the HBO series, Da Ali G Show. I saw about 10 minutes of an episode once — enough to see that it was one of those deals where the performer adopts various bizarre personas and goes out in public that way, filming the reactions of people who don’t realize they are interacting with an actor.
I don’t like that kind of business. Behaving outrageously and making ordinary people upset is a cheap, mean way to get laughs. Daily life is challenging enough — why should people have to put up with professional assholes making money off of their discomfort?
For the most part, Borat is one of those movies. To explain why I’m recommending it, I’ll have to discuss some of the particulars of the film. I’ll reveal as little as possible, but you should consider this a mild spoiler alert. Of course, if you took my advice at the beginning of the review, you aren’t even reading this, so what am I worried about?
The premise: Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) is a journalist in Kazakhstan, a backwards country steeped in ignorance, bigotry and freaky traditions (the government of the real country is not at all happy with this movie). The gangly man with the peppy demeanor is sent to America to make a cultural documentary, accompanied by his producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) a short, squat, hairy man.
The plan goes awry in New York, when Borat spots Pamela Anderson in a Baywatch rerun in his hotel room and decides his destiny is to travel to California and marry her. So Borat and his mystified producer soon end up traveling across the USA in an old ice cream truck.
At the beginning, when Borat is still in his homeland, the movie comes off like just another shock comedy. When the story moves to America and the clueless journalist begins interacting with real people, however, it becomes clear that there is more to the movie than simply making average citizens squirm.
As Borat reveals his vast array of prejudices and absurd beliefs, we watch how our neighbors behave around a man they believe to be a naïve reporter from a backwards nation. They try to be polite and understanding, but when he makes appalling statements about the disabled, women, gays, blacks and especially Jews (Cohen is Jewish), the reactions get interesting.
Many people are offended, of course, but the way it comes out is not always how you might expect. Others aren’t offended at all. The scariest scene happens in a gun shop, when Borat asks the proprietor what kind of gun would be best to kill a Jew. Without even a second of hesitation, the man shows him the gun he believes would be best for the job.
At the screening I attended, there were people laughing so loud, hard and frequently that I feared they would injure themselves. Others, judging from their exit chatter, found the film utterly revolting. I laughed at parts of the film (try sitting through the marathon nude wrestling match between Borat and his producer without laughing) and looked on in horror at other parts.
Borat is a comedy, yes, but it’s also a test. Sacha Baron Cohen uses his comic creation to poke and prod at manners and the class system, at prejudges, at jingoism, at ignorance. The film left me feeling battered, but invigorated. I still don’t like the “let’s make real people uncomfortable and film them” school of comedy, but I have to admit that it pays off royally here.