[7 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s time to take a step back, to get our motion picture priorities in order. We need to move away from extremes, accept certain elements and ideas as a given, and return to the basics of standard cinematic criticism. In the case of a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this may seem like an analytic impossibility. After all, this was the movie that many considered to be one of the funniest of all time. It was an example of those rare lightning in a bottle entertainment explosions that had individuals on both sides of the phenomenon shoring up their positions and pissing off the opposition. You still have those who recklessly defend the meandering mock documentary as the greatest satire in the last 20 years, while others find nothing remotely funny about a man making jokes at the expense of innocent people’s privacy and personal points of view.
Still, Sacha Baron Cohen touched a nerve, tapping into a zealous zeitgeist that obviously couldn’t wait to see the self-righteous and the self-absorbed reduced to stuttering piles of inarticulate smugness. This undeterred demographic, anxious for the smallest amount of scandal, and hungry for proud non-PC pronouncements absorbed everything this British comic was dishing out, and like a motherly mocking bird, regurgitated it to those they felt would react the same way. The result was the best kind of product publicity, a literal word of mouth that propelled the finished product into the ticket sales stratosphere. While some could argue that Cohen’s appearance in Talladega Nights, or his cult comedy series on HBO Da Ali G Show, were natural stepping stones toward Borat‘s success, it was the ambush antics of the title character that resonated further than any of the comedian’s previous foundational facets.
Similarly, those against the movie and its made-up mannerisms tried to refocused the frequently blurred line between ruse and reality. They leapt on the news of angry lawsuits, and supported anyone who felt used by Cohen and his con artist cinema verite approach. For them, Borat is a miserable excuse for entertainment, a slapdash production that can’t even get its attitude adjusted properly. Instead of making everyone the butt of his jokes, critics point out Cohen’s proclivity for picking on the obvious (white people) and the odious (…umm, white people?). Minorities are made out to be tolerant (the group of African American men shooting crap in Atlanta) or somehow saintly (the actress turned pretend prostitute Luenell). Even its own self-imposed intolerance is pitched so perfectly over the top that the slanderous stereotyping doesn’t really hurt.
So, some six months later, after all the praise and the panic, the backlash and the false Academy bravado, what have we got? What is Borat, in the end? In truth, what one winds up with is a really well done fish out of water comedy that goes wildly off course after about 45 minutes and never regains its footing. Right around the time of the infamous naked brawl, shortly after the title character has pissed off a posh dinner party by insulting the guests and inviting a prostitute to be his escort, Borat goes bad. Why? Well, it’s hard to say, really. Nothing much changes. We do lose the amazing Ken Davitian as our lead’s producer and sidekick Azamat Bagatov, and the nonsensical narrative involving Pamela Anderson starts to dominate the direction of the film. Then there is that horrendous sequence where Borat coerces a bunch of drunken fratboys into doing what they do best – sticking their inebriated asses directly into each other’s mouths. Maybe it’s the incredibly false moment where our hero is “healed” during a “been there, seen that” revival meeting filled with crazed Christians.
Whatever the case, the chief reason why most viewers are probably experiencing motion picture morning after regret is that, in general, Borat isn’t the second coming of comedy. It barely breaches the tenets of tenacity needed to make such a statement stand up. Over the last two decades, TV shows like South Park and The Simpsons have managed just as much mean-spirited social commentary without having to resort to Howard Stern/Stuttering John or Jackass like antics. Indeed, it can be said that a well written and performed observation is always better than one captured, piecemeal, out amongst the amiable if awkward public. Any documentary filmmaker will tell you – stick a camera in someone’s face and watch them make a fool of themselves. But in Borat‘s case, the joke is jaundiced by an underhanded conceit that forces foolishness where such stupidity may not exist. Baiting someone into bigotry is one thing. Trying to turn it into an innocent discovery of a deep seeded hatred is another.
Oh, make no doubt about it – America is a racist hole. We live in a vacuum of self-subjective import where “love it or leave it” is supposed to sound friendly, not fascist. We smile politely and wear our shallow sensitivity happily along our heart heavy and diverse shirtsleeves. So when Cohen gets a Texas good old boy to lambaste the Middle East, or finds the desire for a return to slavery in the mind of a misguided South Carolina college student, he’s not really telling us anything we don’t already know. In many ways, Borat is aimed at the viewer more or less blind to the realities of the US of Asses. For said generation, feminism is funny on face value, since dames ain’t supposed to be sniveling over their rights. Anything revolving around sex is equally hilarious, since the ongoing battle between morality and reality has resulted in a definite demonization of said basic biological function. On the one hand, this is a movie that plays perfectly to those without a smidgen of big picture perspective. It’s satire – if there is any – exists only in the small, not the substantive. Besides, Cohen is not that coarse. You can see him striving for more than that throughout Borat‘s beginning arc.
Indeed, had he simply stayed with a SCRIPTED look at his Kazakhstani homeland, expanding the characters, his job as a reporter, and the obvious hatred for gypsies and the surrounding former Soviet territories, we’d have an amazing motion picture. Indeed, even if the decision was made to move the lampoon over to our shores, a carefully crafted script which allows for both the shock AND the solution would have served this material much better. There could have also been room for some improvised bits. An excellent example is the bed and breakfast segment. Even with all its anti-Jewish jibes, the joke ends up being on Cohen and Davitian, not the kindly couple. It’s their reactions, not the horribly derogatory things they are saying, that drives the humor. As it stands, Borat is sporadic and sly, cutting when it wants to be, and lazy when the situation requires. You can see it during the opening ride in the subway. The minute Cohen is confronted by a couple “takin’ no shit” city folk, he cowers like a little school girl and shuts up. On the other hand, when the target is in on the ruse – namely Pam Anderson and her peeps – we get the takedown, the tackle and the use of excessive force.
To make matters worst, the recent DVD release offers up several deleted scenes which prove that, when it comes to pushing buttons, even the filmmakers recognize the need for a reality check. A sequence where Borat proposes to adopt a puppy (which he then proclaims he will have sex with and then eat) is so incredibly crass that it’s not funny or informative. Similarly, a moment where a naked Cohen continually mounts a hotel masseuse loses its entire lunatic luster when, for once, the targeted party merely goes along with the goof. From the many missing scenes provided, it is clear that the final version of Borat is a carefully cut together post-production invention. Indeed, one could argue that Cohen and collaborator Larry Charles (director of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) began this project with a collection of stolen moment skits (the interview material) and then mapped a movie around it.
But all of this still doesn’t answer the basic question – is Borat a good or bad movie? In the final analysis, “neither” seems to be the best response. To call it good, or even great, is to find material inside this movie that just doesn’t exist. To dismiss it outright is to underestimate the power in many of the sequences (like Woody Allen before, Cohen is the new king of hilarious self-mocking Anti-Semitism). And no matter how many times it’s mentioned, the notion of collecting gypsy tears to prevent AIDS just SOUNDS funny. No, in the end, Borat is two thirds of a terrific motion picture. Unfortunately, it’s that last fraction that forces it out of any conversation about its long-term legacy. At least one thing is clear. Cohen better enjoy this time as a cultural talking point. His ship has set sail, and a Roberto Benigni style barrier reef is looming, dead ahead.