06 November 2006
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, and Pamela Anderson
written by: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, from a story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips
directed by: Larry Charles
R, 84 min, 2006, USA
A quick perusal of the universally glowing reviews for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan will yield one undeniable conclusion: film critics cannot, for whatever reason, refrain from referencing the mangled dialect of Kazakhstani TV personality Borat Sagdiyev. Why is that? Is it because we feel some sort of camaraderie with him? Is it the result of a latent anti-Semitic worldview? Nah. It's because, quite simply, we can. Most critics are, at heart, creative people, and a constant filing of reviews can, at times, get somewhat repetitive. So, when a moviefilm as gleefully irreverent as Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan comes along, it gives critics a license to indulge their inner creative soul. Simply put, it's fun.
As you might have gathered from the reviews, so is the film. Provided you have a certain level of tolerance for content that pushes the boundary of the MPAA R-rating, there's a great deal of comedic genius on display. Whether or not the bulk of the comedy will survive the ravages of time remains to be seen, but in late 2006 this is a very, very funny film. Is it, as some have claimed, the funniest film ever made? No, but you already guessed that. It is, however, the funniest film of the year, and for the price of a movie ticket, you can't ask for much more than that. It's a film that plays better on the big screen, in a crowded theatre, which bodes well for the film's box office haul.
So does the fact that the glorious nation of Kazakhstan seems unable to get the joke, going to such lengths as taking out full-page ads in the New York Times and funding a $40 million period epic aimed at counteracting Borat's indications that Kazakhstan is a backwards nation struggling to keep up with the rest of the world. In fact, they've done such a poor job responding to the film that one almost wonders if they're actually in cahoots with the producers of the film.
On to the film itself. Borat is sent by the Kazakhstani government to tour America in order to help bring the country into step with the rest of the world. Once in America, he goes around mortifying innocent (and not so innocent) civilians with his unique brand of journalism and quickly falls in love with Pamela Anderson, convincing him that he must travel across the country and make her his wife. And...that's the plot. Along the way, he pushes every boundary of good taste known to man. I'll avoid details for the simple reason that it's a film that benefits from a lack of knowledge. Try, if you can, to know as little as possible going in.
The thing is, Borat hasn't a clue his actions are so offensive. Much is made of his views, the misogyny, the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, but these are beliefs ingrained in Borat's personality. He knows nothing else. Much like the targets of his jokes, Borat lacks the perspective and exposure to different viewpoints and ethnicities necessary to be a well-adjusted member of society. But Borat has an excuse: he lives in a former Soviet republic with a cow in his bedroom. His targets, however, live in the richest country in the world. They live in a melting pot. Even deep in the Bible Belt all they have to do to encounter people different from themselves is walk down the street. They have no excuse for holding the views Borat so quickly exposes. They've willingly placed themselves in a society that's not all that different from Kazakhstan. They've chosen to become as boorish as Borat, so when they encounter him, they recognize a kindred soul and the floodgates to their prejudices open wide. This is the sort of social statement that you rarely see outside of academia. It's often noted that to get a honest look at a society, you have to approach it from the outside, so it's fitting that it takes a British comedian posing as a Kazakhstani TV personality to show us something true about ourselves.
One of the pleasant surprises in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is the performance of said comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, who has added levels previously unseen to the Borat character. This is a Borat terrified of an old Jewish couple, mortified to learn of Pamela Anderson's sexual past, genuinely thrilled to learn of the death of his wife, and, at his most vulnerable point, pushed to the edge of collapse. Cohen handles all of this with aplomb and total dedication to his character. It's rare you even see such devotion to a role in any film, much less a broad comedy. Cohen owns the role, his transformation is complete. It's honestly one of the best performances of the last couple of years. If Johnny Depp can score an Oscar nomination for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), then it would be only fitting for the Academy to recognize Cohen. I doubt they will, but they should.
As should be evident from the trailers and commercials, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is not for everyone. Much like South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999) it requires a disregard for certain cultural taboos, but if you can look past the hard R, it's well worth your time. You've never seen anything like it. Or, to quote Borat, "Great success!"