'Borat': Gratuitous America-Bashing

What you are about to read is the most incredibly perfect movie review ever written, anywhere, by anyone, in all of recorded history. You will find it spellbinding, insightful, hilarious, poignant, revealing, and utterly brilliant. After reading this review there will be no need for you to ever read another for the rest of your life. In fact, after reading this, any other movie reviews you read between now and the end of time will seem shabby, cheap and profane by comparison.

Gee, I hope I haven’t raised your expectations too much, because that’s what the producers of “Borat” did to me and I’m just sick about it.

I admit it: I drank the “Borat” Kool-Aid. Since first becoming aware of the “Borat” juggernaut six or eight months ago I have laughed heartily at the “Borat” previews, eagerly read the “Borat” articles, and breathlessly counted the days until the movie’s premiere last week. How overblown was the hype campaign for “Borat”? The last British entertainment phenomenon to receive this much pre-release flogging was the Beatles—and even they weren’t pre-ordained the greatest popular musical quartet of the century even though that’s what they turned out to be. Funny I should mention the Beatles because one of the hysterical cries for help, I mean articles written about “Borat” during this summer’s run-up described an advance screening of the film attended by America’s hippest young comedy moviemakers—you know, the people who brought you “Dude Where’s My Car”?

At the end of the screening one member of the condescendi turned to another and said, “I feel as though I’ve just heard ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ for the first time.” Having now seen “Borat” I can positively state that the guy was either referring to the lame soundtrack of Beatle covers that accompanied Robert Stigwood’s execrable 1978 film, or there’s at least one would-be purveyor of comedy in Hollywood in need of a swiftly-moving axe handle to the head. Memo to the comedy brain trust behind (among other things) Rob Schneider’s oeuvre: “Borat” is not one of the funniest movies of all time. It’s also not the funniest movie of this year. In fact, I can’t even state with certainty that “Borat” was even the funniest movie of last week, not having seen “Santa Clause 3.” If there was an Academy Award for pre-release hype of a so-so movie this year’s field would be crowded with well-deserving nominees that shall remain nameless at least until I write my next review. And while just being nominated for such an award is quite a dishonor, “Borat” would surely take this year’s prize in that category.

As to this movie’s merits, the main one is Borat himself. Like many great comic characters, Borat Sagdiyev is dim, smug, and unaccountably optimistic. And Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance is often inspired, with subtle shadings, expert timing, and an unshakable sense of who this poor fool is. All of which can make Borat achingly funny, in—and this is the key—small doses. Cohen’s characters being inappropriate and/or asking inane questions can be very amusing, for a few minutes at a time, but it simply can’t be sustained over the length of a feature film. Moreover, comedy (like drama) needs a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, during which character development builds suspense (if a drama) or humor (if a comedy) as we approach its conclusion. As opposed to “Borat,” in which a series of unrelated incidents (some very funny, some slightly amusing, several quite disturbing) are strung together in a failed attempt to make them resemble a story (i.e., some foreign idiot makes his way across the United States).

If you’re not familiar, here’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy formula: His characters interact with unwitting dupes to the point where the character’s misbehavior either (a) induces uncomfortable silence, (b) gets victims to say things they shouldn’t. Then the victim either storms off or asks Cohen to leave. Not surprisingly the sequences are often mean-spirited and juvenile, if not actually abusive. The best ones are drawn-out pranks; the worst evoke memories of the monumentally talent-less Tom Greene: witless, cruel stunts devoid of anything but shock value.

To these ends Borat (in no particular order, as there’s no story) ruins a Southern dinner party by bringing in a black prostitute; terrorizes a sweet old Jewish couple’s bed and breakfast; massacres the National Anthem at a Virginia rodeo, and mocks charismatic Christians as they worship. He also befriends some black inner-city teens, putting a new twist on the obligatory, stereotype-strewn “dorky white guy pretending to be black” routine that was so funny back in the 1980’s. Believe it or not these antics are not as side-splittingly funny as they sound. And since there’s no story, as we’ve noted, what unfolds on the screen before us is string of random scenarios. There’s no build-up, no pay-off, no resolution of any kind. As the credits roll audiences are simply left to contemplate which scenes worked and which didn’t. Which is why even if you really, really liked some of the scenes—as I did—you simply can’t call “Borat” a great, or even a particularly good, comedy.

As to the movie’s other agenda, it’s pretty clear that Cohen’s sojourn across America was something of a fishing expedition. Along the way he was hoping to find Americans willing to express racist or homophobic views. And sure enough, he struck pay dirt with some drunk college kids who didn’t like affirmative action and some old guy at the rodeo who didn’t like gays. But by and large the decent, normal Americans Borat encountered along the way were horrified by his racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. Why? Maybe because, even with our shameful legacies of slavery and racism (shared by many other countries, of course), the United States is also a country where racial equality was, to a great extent, invented.

As someone who wrote his Cambridge thesis on the American civil rights movement, Sacha Baron Cohen should know that (and probably does). Or to put it slightly more bluntly: I don’t think a Brit is in any position to lecture me on race relations, thanks very much. Instead of making yet another movie about what a racist hellhole America is, my British friend, how about you stop bashing Pakis and go brush your teeth? If you’ve got a problem with that, slip into something red and we’ll meet you back at Yorktown—we’ll be the guys dressed in the buckskins. If you’ve got a problem with that—and I can see how you might—go boil something, you smug limeys, or else we won’t lend you any more warships the next time Germany attacks. Was that xenophobic enough for you, Borat fans? Gee, I sure hope so.

To summarize: There’s a lot of really funny stuff in “Borat,” almost all of which you can see for free by watching the trailer or viewing some of the free clips available on the Internet. But unless you get your jollies watching naked men wrestle face-to-crotch—that is, unless you’re a die-hard Tom Greene fan—no need to waste your money going to see this in a theater. Or to paraphrase Borat on “Borat”: “It’s-a nice … I kind of like.”