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 V.15 No.44 | November 2 - 8, 2006 

Film Review

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Faux documentary tries to be offensive and funny, manages 50 percent of its goals

“In my country, TV watch you!”
“In my country, TV watch you!”

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Directed by Larry Charles

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Pamela Anderson

Is British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (creator of “Da Ali G Show” and the face behind phony journalist Borat) funny because he's an annoying jerk or is he funny because he's pretending to be an annoying jerk? Either way, the end result is the same--which leads me to this review’s preemptory confession. I don’t find Cohen funny. I’ve never found him funny. Madonna thinks he’s hilarious, but that’s just one of the many differences between us. So it should come as no surprise that I hated Cohen’s new movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The film is crude, juvenile and rancidly offensive. I didn’t so much as crack a smile while watching it. Plus, I felt kinda queasy afterward.

But that is not to say there aren’t some of you out there who will consider this the funniest movie ever made. I fully admit that. The man has fans. If you’re one of them, you’ll probably laugh your ass off. Nonetheless, I firmly maintain this film deserves to be flushed onto the crapheap of unwatchable, should-never-have-been-made comedies alongside Carrot Top’s Chairman of the Board, Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered and Larry the Cable Guy’s Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector.

Rabid fans of Cohen will be instantly comfortable with Borat, having familiarized themselves with the character in his previous “Da Ali G Show” appearances. Like fellow TV pranksters Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Kennedy and Howie Mandel (what fine company to be in), Cohen frequently dresses up as outrageous ethnic stereotypes (Arabs, Asians, Frenchmen) and interviews people either too stupid or too polite to recognize they’re being pranked.

The film is set up as a faux documentary about clueless Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen), who comes to America to profile “the greatest country on Earth.” What follows is a string of real-life, “Jackass”-esque pranks pulled off by the always-in-character Cohen. The purpose (I’m guessing) is to expose Americans as a bunch of racist xenophobes while more-or-less repeating Yakov Smirnov’s “Vat a country!” schtick from 1986.

Some might argue that Cohen is, in reality, a thoroughly enlightened, non-racist, non-jerky humorist whose assaultive style of comedy exposes certain truths about his chosen subjects. He’s like Lenny Bruce with a fake mustache, or Ghandi with a potty mouth. But I’m not buying it.

Will it come as a surprise to any viewers that if you appear at a rodeo in the heartland of America and start making up rude words to the National Anthem people in cowboy hats will start booing you? It shouldn’t. Are you really exposing the inherent racism of Southerners if you show up to a formal dinner party, insult the hosts, make sexist remarks, carry around a baggie full of dookie and then get thrown out when you “invite” a scantily clad prostitute (who happens to be black) to dinner? No. In that instance, you’re just being a jerk. And, as it turns out, a lot of people don’t like jerks. In fact, it seems to me, most of the people being pranked, punk’d or otherwise messed with in this film are extraordinarily tolerant of this idiotic “foreigner.”

The film’s road trip script centers around a slim excuse for a story (Borat sees Pamela Anderson on TV and decides he’s going to drive across America and marry her). But that’s really only the flimsiest of clotheslines on which to string Cohen’s random cross-country pranks, many of which come across surprisingly flat. One sequence has Borat visiting an exotic animal farm where he mistakes every animal for a dog. Isn’t that just bust-a-gut funny? Another slapstick-saturated sequence has him falling down and breaking all the merchandise in a mom-and-pop antique shop. As a punch line, he stiffs the elderly owners. Hilarious, no?

If you aren’t already a dyed-in-the-wool Cohen maniac, you should probably stay far away from this one. (20th Century Fox seems to agree, having slashed the opening weekend from 2,000 screens across America to a mere 700.) Nonfans will spend what little time they can actually stomach staring aghast at (for example) the near-endless footage of fat, fully nude guys wrestling that constitutes this film's height of humor. (Heck, even Cohen fans may find the near-gynecological examination of hirsute assholes a bit much to take.)

What Kazakhstan did to deserve such vitriol from the British comedian is beyond me. The central Asian country is portrayed as a nation of stupid, poverty-stricken, racist, incestuous anti-Semites. Outrageous? Yes. Offensive? Yes. Funny? No. Go ahead, brand me as a humorless snob if you want to. I’ll just go back to watching highbrow stuff like “Benny Hill.”

 

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