Part road movie, part absurdist documentary, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is an outrageous travelogue, celebrating the sideshows of our American carnival with wit and showmanship. This is not a new project, but rather a culmination for Borat Sagdiyev, the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s hopelessly aloof Kazakh television reporter. In the film, Borat’s humor—a mixture of provocative social critique and scatological slapstick—is given more space and goes further than in his appearances on HBO’s Da Ali G Show. We remain in Borat’s world of outrageous interviews with unsuspecting members of the public, but now spectacle—naked wrestling, pet bears, Jewish cockroaches—amplifies both the character and the world that he inhabits.
The film begins in Borat’s village in Kazakhstan, where we are introduced to such citizens as “the town rapist” and witness the “running of the Jews,” an event where giant devil puppets pursue the townspeople through cobbled streets. There is more provocation, and more uneasy, but hearty, laughter in these first few minutes than you’ll get in most films—and it’s just the send-off party.
After arriving in New York, Borat begins his usual shtick, interviewing a group of feminists and an impossibly square humor expert who teaches Borat the subtleties of the “not joke.” This is well-worn territory for Borat—and, indeed, for all of Cohen’s characters—and he grows restless, dreaming of a brash and earnest America that lies beyond the big city.
A glimpse of Pamela Anderson on a rerun of Baywatch is all Borat needs to justify a cross-country tour. (He won’t fly because he is concerned that the Jews might “repeat their attack of 9/11”). From this point onward, the movie becomes a journey through the warmth and vulgarity of the American South. At times, Borat is the show himself, making a spectacle out of everyday life and forcing his boorishness into the homes of (what seem to be) pretty swell folks. It’s a wonderfully ridiculous effect.
Yet many of the film’s best moments come when Borat plays softly, letting the real-life characters around him take center stage. With a little bit of prodding, we see moments that are uncomfortable in their bigotry as well as some that are merely funny in their absurdity. The movie mocks almost all of its subjects, but it’s a warm mockery—Borat wants to get to know people rather than dismiss them. It’s a mixture of shtick and satire as well as provocation and embrace that gives the film it’s fantastically entertaining rhythm.
Much has been made about Borat’s anti-Semitism, as well as his remarks on gays, gypsies, and Kazakhs. In a companion effort to Fox’s advertising campaign, the government of Kazakhstan has decried Borat’s false characterization of the country, and a group of German gypsies has sued Baron Cohen, calling for his film to be banned. Efforts like these only amplify the comedy, but it’s true that the film gives us an uncomfortable brand of humor, especially since it’s delivered by a character with no detectable sense of irony. We know that Baron Cohen, a self-described “observant Jew,” is laughing behind the mask, but his immersion in character is such that we never see him.
When a comedian like Sarah Silverman cracks racial and religious jokes, she is embracing a tradition of provocative stand-up that was radical during Richard Pryor’s early career, but has now become standard—even somewhat quaint. Her humor mocks awkward political correctness but never faces ugly reality head on.
Borat ventures directly into the ugliness. The America of guilt and careful inoffensiveness bores him; he’s much more at home among lively and vulgar people, people whom he barely needs to prompt to achieve the absurd. On one hand, Borat rewards the majority of his HBO-watching, latte-drinking audience for being unlike many of the people he meets on the way. On the other hand, however he forces that same audience to spend time with people whom they usually deride from a distancee. Even with the outlandish figure of Borat Sagdiyev serving as ringleader, the movie feels raw and real in a way that stand-up comics rarely are.
Borat is occasionally thought-provoking and squirm-inducing, but most of the movie provides the guiltless laughs of physical slapstick and bumbling awkwardness. A naked wrestling scene between Borat and his producer, Azamat, is one of the highlights of the film, as we are treated to the sight of two angry Kazakh men screaming through the halls of a business hotel in the buff. At a southern rodeo, Borat incites the crowd to cheer as he declares his hopes that “Premier George W. Bush will drink blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq,” but the biggest laughs occur when a horse enters the frame and throws its rider into the side rail. It’s a spontaneous moment of physical comedy that works because it comes amid such a different brand of humor. Borat’s versatility is the key to its success. It can be crass, outrageous, offensive, and silly, but it’s always engaging and deeply funny.