Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Showered with orgasmic praise on its cinematic release, this unlikely financial and critical success arrives on DVD burdened by the weight of expectations. Now, loathe as I am to appear a curmudgeon and totally spoil your fun; you must allow me to have mine and do so just a little. For in Borat, bawdy visual tomfoolery sits uneasily alongside an incendiary expose of the bleak side of American culture. These elements are cobbled into a slender narrative, involving hapless creation Borat Sagdiyez (Sacha Baron Cohen) travelling to America; attempting to ingratiate himself with the real-life, largely unsuspecting, inhabitants in the hope of learning lessons for “make benefit of Kazakhstan”. His quest later extends to finding romance, even if it must be by force.

Physically the character of Borat cuts a sinister figure; imposingly lofty with dead eyes, a thick porno-moustache and military intensity, he has a slightly unnerving air about him and, rather distractingly, a demented lolling head. Such characteristics, particularly the latter, mean that his cultural ignorance sometimes plays as a mental deficiency and that the humour is more at the expense of a simpleton than a foreigner. He has a portly and underused sidekick / producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), who seems to have been included based on the spurious assumption that fat = funny. And if such things tickle you, then this guy is really fat.

Sagdiyez’s cultural gaffes are, for the most part, uninspired. To bastardise an adage, the collaborators appear to be working on the assumption that the portrayal of ignorance will always make for blissful viewing. However, of course, it quickly becomes tiresome. UK audiences will already be familiar with this central character through his exploits on British television, so they have already had to endure more than enough. In fact Baron Cohen’s previous alter-ego, the woeful Ali G (an attempt to embody the trend of white kids appropriating black culture), adopted a similar shtick in a moronic parody conceived to expose through interview how lacking in canny, in that instance, various British politicians and celebrities are. As if we didn’t suspect.

In Borat, what I found to be most irksome is the way in which it all too frequently and shamelessly panders to the lowest common denominator; in fact to the very people that it seeks, on occasion, to mock. In part, it appears to be an heir to the teen road trip crown of Dude Where’s My Car. That it coverts this audience is reinforced by the selection of trailers (Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, Super Troopers, Grandma’s Boy). Within the film itself, this particular facet of its compromised identity is evident in a number of scenes; for example, Borat dons the infamous swimming costume; there’s a protracted and stomach-turning naked wrestling sequence; and with what ultimately becomes the focus of the narrative, there’s Borat’s pursuit and attempted capture of former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Anderson, clearly in on the joke and in one of her better performances, is admirably game. Considering it was applauded for its transgressive and confrontational approach to comedy; these detrimentally crass, and moreover unfunny, moments seriously undermine any genuine subversiveness. This inconsistency or, more accurately, charlatanism, is frustrating to say the least.

In terms of bizarre spectacle, a sequence filmed in the Pentecostal Church betrays more rampant lunacy than the filmmakers could hope to engineer. Children nod fervently; people applaud bad grammar; men speak in tongues, and the masses lurch forward like a zombie hoard. Amidst this, Borat initially seems lost but the crowd, in one of the film’s better, weirder and ultimately more charming moments, quickly embraces him as one of their own. Actually, almost all of the film’s forays into the surreal work. For instance, Borat peruses a yard sale convinced that the host is a gypsy with designs on bewitching him; he mistakes a tortoise for a “cat in a hat”; and, in the extras, hardened jailbird / domestic guru Martha Stewart is completely unfazed by his relentless come-ons as they make a bed together on the Jay Leno show.

With regards to controversy about this film, of which there has been plenty, the most shocking moments are outbursts which are not coaxed but apparently volunteered; the misogynist, caravanning, frat- boys being a notable example. Also disturbing is the behaviour at the bravura rodeo sequence where Borat confronts the crowd with mock support for the bloodthirsty Iraq war. It is genuinely daring and, made all the more amusing when watched in conjunction with the edited news footage (see extras) — where the bigoted rodeo promoter feigns indignation at Borat’s antics, which, with the exception of his personalised version of the national anthem, were cheered by the crowd. This cheering is mysteriously absent from the news story. To address a frequent criticism of the film: chiding it for being un-PC would be a misguided tack, as its targets are so broad. Those who have levelled at it accusations of anti-Semitism and homophobia are ignoring the fact that sequences where the gay and Jewish community are depicted are the film’s rare moments of warmth.

Now time for credit where it’s due; Sacha Baron Cohen is to be congratulated for his astonishing ability to maintain focus and actorly composure in the face of some alarmingly uncomfortable and, on occasion, hostile situations. Though his performance lacks range (basically going from girning, to confused, and back to girning) his timing is largely spot on. As a whole the film can be repetitive, the humour is frequently base, and those who are averse to the comedy of social discomfort would be advised to steer clear, because there isn’t a second when you won’t want to avert your eyes. It is a comedy of errors, in more than one sense, but certainly not one without merit.

The reasonable extras include: several deleted scenes, trailers, a mock music video compilation, and a promotional tour documentary.

RATING 6 / 10
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