First and foremost, let me make it clear that this movie has extremely outrageous and offensive material and is not for the faint of heart or the easily shocked, and inappropriate for sensitive or impressionable viewers. But it’s also very funny. If you’re going to this movie, take a deep breath because when you aren’t gasping with laughter, you’ll just be gasping. No matter how unshockable you may think you are, this movie is going to do its best to shake you up — at a level that is measured by the Richter scale.
British actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays Borat, a television journalist from the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan who comes to the United States with his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), to make a documentary. Borat is not very bright or knowledgeable but he makes up for that with boundless enthusiasm and self-confidence. In other words, he’s just the guy to update Alexis de Tocqueville and tell the rest of the world what America is all about.
Borat first introduces us to his country, smiling broadly as he explains local customs like “The Running of the Jews” and proudly introduces us to his sister as he explains that he has personal knowledge of her abilities as a prostitute.
And then he comes to the US, in what has to be the most extensive and subversive practical joke ever made by a Hollywood studio. America, you’ve been punk’d.
Apparently, the real-life participants in the film were told that it was a legitimate Kazakh documentary. They were given release forms so extensive and mundane-looking that they had no idea it was an elaborate put-on. And so the fake guileless offensiveness of the character created by a real-life comedian is somehow sanitized (nearly) by the real-life guileless offensiveness of the people he meets. Never suspecting that what they say and do will be featured in a major Hollywood feature film, they display to “Borat” — and to us — some of what is worst about America. And, once in a while, what is best, too.
Normally, I am not a fan of the comedy of discomfort and humiliation, and I especially dislike the kind of pranks that seem to me to be easy and cheap — you can always make someone look foolish by knowing something he does not know.
What makes this movie work, what in essence disinfects what would otherwise be a tedious and too-long segment of “Punk’d” or “Jackass” is that is is mesmerizingly revealing. As Rosario Dawson says in Clerks 2, “I’m disgusted and repulsed and — I can’t look away.”
Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters have been popular with Brits as part of “Da Ali G Show” since 2000. But Baron Cohen’s arrival in America –- coinciding with the stateside arrival of his Kazakh alter-ego, Borat the journalist -– has gained him both fans and enemies here in what he calls “the US and A”.
His film, endowed with the cumbersome title “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”, blends the crude humor of “South Park” and the wit of “The Daily Show,” resulting in a combination that understandably and intentionally offends viewers. As Borat, Baron Cohen walks like a stiff-legged, six-foot Pinocchio, stumbling through America as clueless as Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf. Like Buddy, Borat isn’t laughable because he’s stupid; he’s laughable because he’s sweet and misunderstood. Through his eyes, we can see ourselves from the outside. Borat takes America and, by exuding innocence, reveals how dark a place it can be. His racist, homophobic, and sexist comments are appalling, but that’s the joke — his eyes are sincere, his love is sweet, his heart is innocent, and his excrement is carried to the dinner table so that he can ask the hostess what to do with it. The joke is, “Isn’t it ridiculous to have extreme opinions about other people based on sex, race and ethnicity?” and the reality is that not everyone believes it is. Some people laugh uncomfortably, some people get angry, and some people agree with Borat. Some people are so ignorant about people outside the U.S. that it never occurs to them that he is not for real. That’s when the film hits on isolated but serious moments that cut deeper than most other comedy.
The genius of Baron Cohen is that in creating a racist and sexist character, he reveals the absurdity of racism, sexism and stereotyping. His film becomes sharp exploration of our own prejudices and stereotypes — Kazakhstan’s most high-profile (if most fictional) resident is portrayed as innocently uncouth and impossibly un-PC, and for much of America, he represents everyone from Kazakhstan. The ease with which Borat’s unsuspecting victim truly believe him to be genuine belies how deep the stereotypes run.
All this might make the film seem like a somber exploration of prejudice. Yet it has men running naked through hotel hallways, drunken frat boys, street kids willing to provide some coolness tips, exasperated feminists, an evangelical group only too happy to bring Borat to Jesus, a search for gypsy tears to refill his protective vial, and a Jewish couple from a bed and breakfast who bring Borat a little snack that he assumes must be poisoned. And Pamela Anderson.
In his film, Baron Cohen has Borat refer to a Trojan Horse. But just as the audience leaves the theatre wondering whose prejudices have been most exposed, the question of where the real Trojan Horse is lingers as a fake Kazakhstan anthem accompanies the credits across screen. And that’s Baron Cohen’s trick — he’s crafted an intricate invasion of America in movie form, on the surface a laugh-out-loud comedy and inside, an expose of the audience itself.
Parents should know that this movie revels in every possible category of offensive humor and is not appropriate for underage audiences or for many adults. It includes extremely strong and vulgar language, ethnic insults (while satirizing bigotry), sexist humor, explicit and crude sexual humor (including incest jokes), explicit potty humor. There is very graphic non-sexual nudity and comic violence, including a long nude wrestling match. It should be emphasized that while the characters often make racist, homophobic, and sexist comments, the movie’s intention is to satirize these views, not to endorse them. Yet Cohen is determined to be offensive, and he succeeds.
Families who see this film should discuss world geography –- perhaps placing Kazakhstan on a map -– American perceptions of other cultures and their perception of ours. How does daily contact with people from other cultures enhance understanding? What are some other ways to understand various world customs? (Reading, music, food, festivities?) Parents should also discuss ethnic conflicts with their children – what are some of the ethnic conflicts that have had the most influence on current events? What are some important historical conflicts to understand?
Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy 2004’s Team America: World Police and the film based on the South Park television series, South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut. Both films have extremely strong and potentially offensive language, scenes and concepts, but share Baron Cohen’s sense of humor.