Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Borat” has received a lot of hype as being one of the funniest films ever made. It is certainly a funny film. Writer/star Sacha Baron Cohen has used the semi-plausible Eastern European journalist from his popular British sketch comedy programme “Da Ali G Show” to poke fun at some particularly ignorant Americans. In this feature film version of the show, Borat interviews Americans, mining comedy from (largely imaginary) culture clashes.
Examples: Borat approaches New Yorkers looking for a friendly hug, and one man runs. He visits a stand-up comedy professor, and gets some questionable advice on humor. He visits an upscale Southern household, and is baffled by the toilet. He asks an aging Republican Texan about how homosexuals are treated in America, and his reply is startlingly frank and hilariously horrible. He keeps a hen in his bag at all times, thinks most women can be paid for sexual favors, and is deathly afraid of the monstrous, shape-changing Jews.
Of course, he uses the shield of his bad language skills and wacky backward culture to bait most of his subjects, but the result is damning and hilarious. “Borat: CLoAfMBGNoK” is funniest when the unknowing, unscripted subjects squirm under Cohen’s awkward cultural confessions. The coup de graçe involves the real Pamela Anderson, playing herself, and a “marriage bag.” Either Anderson is a better actress than she’s been given credit for, or Cohen tried something largely criminal in pursuit of humor. You’d be surprised to learn it’s the former.
So, yes, I laughed a lot during “Borat.”
But, but… I was still uncomfortable for much of “Borat.” Is Borat himself funny? Is it really still funny to poke fun at the wacky cultures of impoverished Eastern Europeans? Didn’t that go out of fashion back in the heyday of Don Novello and Harry Stewart (Fr. Guido Sarducci and Yogi Yorgesson/Klaus Hammerschmidt respectively)? Don’t we, today, wince at some of Mel Blanc’s “foreign” characters in old Bug Bunny cartoons?
Kazakhstan is a real country (I’ve even known some Kazakhs), and I doubt Cohen went to any trouble to find out what the country is actually like. The Kazakh government was even, briefly, up in arms over “Borat.” They did have a right to be, although it would be hard for anyone (except some of the subjects in the film) to take Borat seriously as a bastion of Kazakh (or any other) culture. It’s Americans that come across the worst in “Borat,” and I have no problem with some good-natured mocking of some of them. Besides, I think most of the audiences who latched onto Borat are not concerned with his status as a cultural symbol, and instead just enjoy quoting him. The same thing happened with, say, Austin Powers. Or Napoleon Dynamite.
N.B. There’s a scene in which Borat visits a Pentecostal church, and witnesses heretofore unknown Christian practices of speaking in tongues and falling over. He doesn’t really comment on it, but merely films it. The scene is not strictly funny, as church services like this, although a bit odd to many, still take place all over the country. But, before any of you Pentecostals get upset that Cohen’s making fun of you, remember that the scene takes place at Borat’s lowest moment. He is saved by the church. There’s a