Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan succeeds by combining just the right amount of slapstick debauchery and bathroom humor with clever social commentary disguised in ignorance and a bad suit.
The film centers on Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen), a journalist from Kazakhstan who has come to the United States to learn about the culture and, as the plot develops, to marry Pamela Anderson. The movie is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style, with Borat occasionally narrating in third person, summarizing his perspective on the things he has experienced. Borat’s appearance and vernacular are funny enough on their own, but when he begins to ask questions from a seemingly ignorant third-world perspective, the real hilarity ensues.
If one is not familiar with the work of British comic Cohen or his show, Da Ali G Show, they may miss a level of the humor. Cohen has three completely different alter egos that he takes on in Da Ali G Show. One of them is Borat, while the other is a homosexual entertainment reporter named Bruno. The third, and probably the most famous, is a British gangster talk show host named Ali G.
Cohen’s ability to make each of the characters seem legitimate to the subjects he interviews on the show is amazing. It seems to highlight the willingness of individuals to accept that others are simply more ignorant than themselves and that exceptions must be made for them. This signature ability to seem completely clueless is in full effect in Borat.
The movie begins with a crass introduction to the Kazakhstan of Cohen’s imagination. Borat narrates the scene, painting a picture of a completely backward country where the people drink fermented horse urine and make homosexuals wear blue hats. He even goes as far as to highlight the highly anti-Semitic feelings of the citizens and claim that the country has “the best prostitutes in all of region.”
Somehow it is the things that one is not supposed to laugh at that seem to be the funniest. Cohen does an excellent job at toeing the line between parody and downright offensiveness.
When Borat sets foot on American soil, he begins to draw attention not only to his own ignorance, but also to the willing ignorance of a lot of the American citizens he encounters. Early in the film, Borat goes to a car dealership because he wants to drive to California in order to pursue Pamela Anderson. He is looking at a Hummer with one of the salesmen and inquires how fast he would have to go in order to make sure he could kill a gypsy with the vehicle. With barely any hesitation or surprise, the salesman replies, “About 45.” This pattern of ridiculous lines of questioning supposedly masked in cultural difference is a theme throughout the movie. As Borat pushes the envelope gradually, asking people more and more prejudiced questions, the amount of agreement he gets is both enlightening and unnerving.
The movie feels like an extended Borat skit from Da Ali G Show, which is by no means a bad thing. During his American odyssey, Borat fearlessly questions all of the touchy areas of American life. He is saved at a Pentecostal church, spends an evening in a hotel wrestling in his underwear with homosexuals and discusses minorities with an RV full of frat boys from South Carolina – the list goes on.
The movie is funny, but it may take a lot of moral leeway in order to appreciate the humor. There are plenty of references to rape, anti-Semitism and misogyny. If one is willing to recognize that Borat is just a movie and not real, there will be plenty of enjoyment to be found. It’s really hard not to laugh at two eastern European guys driving an ice cream truck down the highway with a roaring bear chained up in the back.