For those unfamiliar with British comic Sacha Baron Cohen and his sketch character, Borat Sagdiyev, the ridiculously titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan serves as an amped-up “best of” collage based on bits already aired on European television. Borat, who was first introduced on Cohen’s Da Ali G Show, is a gregarious journalist from Kazakhstan who’s proud of what he portrays as his misogynistic, racist, poverty-stricken and horrifyingly backward homeland, which he touts in his broken English as the “No. 1 producer of potassium in all world.”
On the TV show, Borat is thrust into often hilarious situations that take the foreign-guy-in-a-different-culture shtick to an extreme. With no broadcast regulations to consider in the R-rated Borat movie, this simply gets extrapolated to the nth degree. As the story goes, the Kazakh Ministry of Information sends Borat on a special assignment to the “US and A” so he can document on camera insights from “the greatest country in the world.” But after arriving in New York City, the overly friendly outsider gets hit with a Mack truck-size reality: Not all Americans are forthcoming, nor do they take kindly to some of his “people’s” ways of life.
While flipping through channels in his hotel room one night, Borat spots actress Pamela Anderson on a Baywatch rerun and it’s love at first sight. Determined to ask the Hollywood star to marry him, the reporter convinces his portly producer, Azamat Bagatov, that to uncover the real United States, they need to make their way to California.
What becomes a memorable cross-country journey for them is a trip most moviegoers will quickly wish to forget.
Borat forgives Azamat for allegedly “defiling” his dream woman. At the end of his expedition Borat states, “If you chase a dream—especially one with a plastic chest—you can miss the real beauty in front of you.”
It could be argued that Borat unearths some of our country’s long-running societal problems, particularly racism. For instance, a man at a rodeo tells Borat that he should shave his mustache so he doesn’t look like “a dadgum Muslim that’s got a bomb.” He also advocates hanging all homosexuals.
That event, and a smattering of others like it, aren’t positive things in and of themselves. Yet moviegoers can infer from them that prejudice of any sort is deconstructive, pointless and downright silly. The moral punch is easy to miss, however. The film goes out of its way to confuse the issue, partly by way of the extreme manner in which Borat extracts his “money quotes,” and partly because Borat himself is prone to unleash racist remarks. (More on his verbal volleys in “Other Negative Elements.”) In Cohen’s world you can forget about “good” unless it’s good for a laugh.
Finding himself abandoned, dejected and penniless, Borat wanders into a Pentecostal church. There, the message of the gospel is explicitly preached, with songs such as “There Is Power in the Blood” playing in the background. An evangelist not only explains to Borat that Jesus came as God manifested in the flesh, he also speaks of the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross to forgive our sins with the shedding of His blood. Even more poignant is when the (supposedly) heartbroken, desolate Borat hears that Jesus’ limitless love extends to anyone and everyone, no matter what they’ve done or who they are. “Can Jesus heal pain in my heart?” the foreigner asks. After being told that, yes, Jesus can heal even that, Borat is led in the sinner’s prayer.
Maybe not since The Apostle have I witnessed onscreen such a lengthy depiction of God’s transforming power and His ever-open embrace to the brokenhearted. Sadly, though, it’s meant—as is every second of this film—only to summon giggles and guffaws. When Borat pretends to accept Jesus, “fall out in the Spirit” and speak in tongues (as others around him are doing), moviegoers at the screening I attended burst into hysterics.
That’s not the only clue that Borat’s conversion is just another kooky exercise in acerbic jest, either. The following scene begins with him declaring that now it would be “me and my friend, Mr. Jesus” together on his sexual pursuit of Pamela Anderson.
Though for reasons more cultural than spiritual, Borat hates Jews. One flashback shows a “Running of the Jew” festival in Kazakhstan, where young boys tear through the streets trying to beat up a person dressed up in a caricatured costume of a “Jew.” When “Mrs. Jew” lays a gigantic egg in the street, they are instructed to “crush that Jew chick before it hatches.” (Yes, it’s supremely offensive.) Incidentally, at the end of the movie, the “converted” Borat says his people no longer conduct the “Running of the Jew” festivals. “We are Christians now,” he explains. The camera then shows townsfolk using a pitchfork to poke at an elderly Jewish man hanging on a cross.
Borat also hates gypsies. In his mind, both gypsies and Jews have magical powers and are evil forces that can disguise themselves in various forms. He describes Jews as having horns on the sides of their heads and holds them responsible for most of the world’s woes, including the attacks of 9/11. When cockroaches appear from under a door, he’s convinced they are Jews coming to get him and tries to ward them off by holding a cross and tossing money. As for the gypsies, Borat believes his journey has been cursed by them, and that he must extract some of their tears to reverse the curse. (He also believes his jar of gypsy tears has kept him from getting AIDS.) When he mistakes a woman at a garage sale for a gypsy, there’s mention of spells and magic.
Pervasive, crude and grotesque. Borat is shown masturbating inside his pants while standing on a busy sidewalk. At a hotel, he walks in on a completely naked Azamat masturbating. (His hand is visible.) The two then get into an agonizingly long scuffle in the nude. (Borat’s penis is censored with a black box; Azamat’s is mostly tucked away by his layers of fat.) Worse, their wrestling is played off like a pornographic film—complete with positional references to anal and oral sex. Among other things, each man’s genitals get mashed up against the other’s face.
It’s no surprise, then, that graphic gay jokes and sight gags run throughout the movie, including several references to anal sex. (One involves rodents.) Borat exchanges onscreen “gropings” with “gay pride” parade participants, and then takes two of them back to his hotel to share an offscreen shower. There are countless references to incest, rape and pedophilia. Borat passionately kisses a woman, then explains that she’s his sister, whom he proudly introduces as the “No. 4 prostitute in all Kazakhstan.” Upon leaving his homeland, he jokingly instructs a neighbor who’s known as the “town rapist” to restrict his rapes to “humans only.”
Borat proudly displays (to his etiquette coach and the camera) X-rated close-ups of his teenage son’s penis. Borat also mentions a disgusting personal “hobby” that involves taking pictures of women while they’re going to the bathroom. (We see Polaroids.) A woman is shown taking a bath. (Her hands cover her breasts.) A pin-up painting shows a topless woman. Borat appears in a thong bathing suit.
After attempting to abduct Pamela Anderson at a book signing, Borat gets tackled hard by security officers. A Kazakh kindergarten class is shown to be a group of boys and girls huddled around lots of powerful guns (AK-47s, etc.). And Borat introduces an older man as the “town mechanic … and abortionist.”
The journalist wreaks havoc in an antique shop, “accidentally” smashing several items. A horse and its rider crash to the ground at a rodeo. A downed horse is whipped. The head of what was once Borat and Azamat’s “pet” bear is seen sitting on a platter in the fridge. As already mentioned in conjunction with some of the film’s other problems, there is implied and real violence associated with the “Running of the Jew” mockery, the “crucifixion” of the Jew scene and the nude wrestling match.
Close to 20 uses of the f-word are combined with more than a dozen s-words and at least the same number of obscene sexual terms (including “c–k,” “d–k” and “p—y”). Racist language, including the n-word, is belted out.
While hitchhiking with a group of fraternity guys, Borat and the collegians get drunk. Lots of beer and hard alcohol is downed, and we see their behavior go from rowdy to simply pitiful. Flashbacks of a hotel-room party with two gay men show Borat holding another bottle of hard liquor. He tries to drink while driving—with his driving instructor. Spectators at a rodeo hold beers. Several Kazakh men smoke.
Borat returns to a fancy dinner party carrying his own feces in a plastic bag. He’s shown relieving himself in the same manner outside Trump Tower in New York. Back in his hotel room, he splashes his face with toilet water. Later, Azamat rinses himself off in a pond while Borat goes to the bathroom only feet away. They’re also shown cleaning up bear dung in the back of a vehicle.
As if making fun of Jews, gypsies, Christians, African-Americans (he uses a racial slur to describe politician Alan Keyes) and women (whom he says have squirrel-sized brains) wasn’t enough, Borat takes numerous shots at the mentally challenged. Citing his own brother as an example, he explains that Kazakhs deal with “retards” by putting them in cages.
With the same deadpan role-playing late comedian Andy Kaufman became famous for, Sacha Baron Cohen is on a mission to simultaneously entertain and offend absolutely everyone on the planet. His primary method? Keep the cameras rolling in public settings while “Borat” reduces unsuspecting targets to a state of apoplexy.
By using himself as a human prop, the comic manages to elicit responses—or, in some cases, non-responses—that are both astounding and indicative. For example, when Borat asks, “What is best gun to defend from a Jew?” a gun shop owner doesn’t think twice before showing off a 9mm. No questions asked. Not a flinch of any sort. Just another prospective sale. And when the Kazakh asks a car salesman how fast a vehicle has to go to kill a band of gypsies, the response is similar: “35 to 40 mph,” the man calmly intones.
Therein lies the secret of Cohen’s work: Do whatever it takes to drum up sexist, racist, obscene and/or stupid responses. (And burn up as much film as necessary to finally get it “right”—read: shocking.) As soon as your initial outrage wears off, you’re left with one of two feelings: growing disgust or bemused admiration. The latter emotion is what is turning Cohen into a critical darling among the mainstream press.
The former is what prompts me to write, with no equivocation, that even Cohen’s best material gets buried by his self-triggered avalanche of perverse, odious and repulsive satire. As noted, gypsies, Christians and the mentally handicapped are favorite targets. So are his fellow Jews. And explicit nudity and sexual “humor” race roughshod through issues of rape, incest, prostitution, pedophilia, masturbation and gay sex.
Is Cohen, er, Borat, ever really funny? He’s funny when he visits a TV station in Jackson, Miss., and can’t quite grasp what is “live” and what isn’t. He’s funny when he fails to understand the timing element of a “not” joke from his humor coach. And he’s funny when he … nope, that’s it. At least that’s the extent of good, clean fun in this big-screen debut.
Of course, vulgar slang and feces humor won’t get Mr. Cohen strung up by his moustache. His butchering of the American National Anthem at a Virginia rodeo nearly did. (He also quipped, “May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!”) Unaware that he was filming a comedy, the crowd grew irate. One witness told the Roanoke Times, “If he had been there a minute longer, I think somebody would have shot him.”
Cohen’s political humor isn’t making him any friends in Kazakhstan, either. Leaders of that former Soviet republic, aware that Borat would paint their nation as worse than backward, waged a preemptive media campaign (here in the U.S.) defending Kazakh culture.
Thus, it seems Kazakh officials instinctively understand what too many Americans still deny: Movies can shape our perception of reality. And Borat can shape the future of comedy. I hope he won’t. But I’m afraid he will. His onscreen humor coach is confident that, “No, that would not be funny in America.” He’s either already wrong, or all too soon may be.