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

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/07/06 22:11:34

"Finally, a Yakov Smirnoff for this generation."
1 stars (Sucks)

While recently discussing Sasha Baron Cohen with a colleague, I described the comic behind the cult TV hit “Da Ali G Show” as “a black hole of comedy.” He’s the sort of inexplicably popular performer around which a dark void sucks in all chances at humor, wit, or entertainment - the sort of wasteland-of-funny that makes you wish you were watching a Wayans Brothers project instead. Cohen proved this by following his “Ali G” work with some hideously obnoxious voice work in “Madagascar.” The only time I found him remotely amusing was earlier this year, in “Talladega Nights,” where somebody else wrote his material.

So no, I was not at all looking forward to seeing Cohen’s heavily praised mockumentary with the ain’t-it-heeelarious title “Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” despite claims by many of my fellow critics that it was the funniest movie ever, or, at least, in a very long time. And yet I dutifully sat through “Borat” in its entirety, all eighty-four lousy, limp, brainless, unbearable minutes of it. I never laughed, I never chuckled, I never cracked a smile. Even if you factor in the potential for increased expectations due to all that hype, and/or you factor in all the anti-Cohen sentiment I carried into the viewing, it still comes down to one thing: not only is nothing in this movie is good at all, but everything - every single stinking frame - is downright awful. “Borat,” plain and simple, sucks.

For those unfamiliar with Cohen’s work, Borat Sagdiyev is one of his kooky-accented characters he made up for “Da Ali G Show.” Borat is a Jew-hating, woman-hating, gay-hating idiot with a giant mustache who hails from a village in Kazakhstan, where he is famous for his television journalism. Cohen’s other characters are a British-Jamaican wannabe rapper and a German homosexual. [Note: I have since been informed that this character is actually an Austrian homosexual, not a German one. Which is still not funny, but I suppose it’s not funny one country over.] The theme to Cohen’s characters is that they all have goofy accents, are very stupid, and try and fail to adopt Western culture - this last point apparently makes them hilarious to Cohen, who finds much comedy in the idea of a foreigner struggling to be “hip.” Considering a main point of “Borat” is to expose the bigotry of others, there’s a bit of irony in Cohen delivering such potentially racist material himself.

Of course, we’re supposed to be in on the joke, and every time Borat says something anti-Semitic, we’re meant to giggle, because Cohen is actually Jewish, so he doesn’t really mean it, he’s just saying what a racist would say, and isn’t that a hoot? But this backfires: couldn’t you say that “jokingly” stating that all Kazakhstanis are either whores, imbeciles, or both is just as hateful as the sort of Jew-bashing Borat does throughout his movie?

Ah, you say, but Cohen’s taking it to such extremes that we’re not to believe that Cohen really thinks that of actual Kazakhstanis, it’s all just a joke, lighten up, dude. This is a valid point. Yet I can’t shake the nagging feeling that at the core of such punchlines, there really is some I’m-better-than-you-because-I’m-Western-and-you’re-not feelings stirring about, especially if you factor in Cohen’s other characters.

But more than that: Cohen’s work is remarkably lazy. Whipping up a few crazy-foreigner accents? Trying to make unsuspecting people cringe when you say stupid things? That’s it? And that’s the catch to “Borat.” It’s not that the movie is offensive or shocking - in fact, the movie is ultimately neither of those things. It is merely unfunny, an unfunniness that grows into total boredom, and eventually into spite. This is the sort of comedy that’s so lazy you actively hate it.

In “Borat,” we watch as Borat and his producer travel to America to learn more about the “U.S. and A.” (Ha ha! He gets words wrong! Just like stupid foreigners! Hilarious!!) The jokes spring up when Borat, whose cameras follow him documentary-style, comes across everyday Americans, then says or does something extremely offensive. How will the man on the street respond to such things?

The intent, as mentioned, is that we get to watch people with their guard down, dealing with a man with limited English and horrible world views - will they agree with his bigotry, and if so, to what extent? As such, “Borat” is less about the crazy foreign guy and more about us, the ugly Americans.

The problem with all of this is that Cohen, his screenwriting crew (four others are also credited with writing what is supposed to be an almost entirely improvisational piece. Hmm…), and director Larry Charles (the former “Seinfeld” writer) have very little real material with which to work. There’s nothing smart about how Cohen works in scenes such as a meeting with a group of feminists, or chatting with a car salesman; instead of digging deep and thinking up things that might actually get to the core of these people’s beliefs and challenge them, Cohen’s Borat simply says a bunch of stuff hoping to piss them off. At a dinner party, Borat excuses himself, then returns from the restroom with a bag full of something you would not want to see at a dinner party. What does this tell us about anything? When the other guests get ruffled by this (or, say, by his comments that one woman at the table is unattractive), are we supposed to think, “oh, they’re being ruffled, how rude of them?” “Oh, hey, Borat’s being gross, and ha ha, they have to put up with him now?” “Borat” is the story of a guy being an asshole around other people who do not want him to be an asshole. How is that funny?

Consider the scene in which Borat is invited to sing the national anthem before a rodeo. He begins this appearance with true comic potential. Borat comments to the right-wing crowd how Kazakhstan supports Bush’s “war of terror,” slowly increasing the dementia of his comments, eager to see just how far he can keep the crowd applauding. (There’s a mixed reaction to his cheer of “May your George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq!”) But just when you think Cohen is about to expose something sinister about Middle America, he cuts in with a bastardized version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (the lyrics are replaced by a faux Kazakhstani anthem), which earned a chorus of boos. What could have been a fun jab at mob mentality winds up being nothing else than proof that people don’t like it when a jerk takes the stage for too long and tells bad jokes.

But at least there we can attempt to comprehend Cohen’s (idiotic) intents, unlike other sequences, like one early in the film in which he meets with a comedy coach. Why? Apparently to watch him squirm as Borat mangles the jokes he suggests, and to laugh at the kind of punchlines the coach thinks is top stuff. But what does this have to do with, well, anything? The scene, like every one before and after it, is overlong, off the mark, and utterly tiresome.

Even when the movie gets scary, finding people willing to agree with Borat’s beliefs - including the old guy who’s OK with hanging gays, or the gun shop owner who doesn’t blink at Borat’s request for the right gun “for defending from Jews” - the movie doesn’t know what to do with such people. And so it just sits there for a few seconds, then nervously cuts away, obviously showing that Cohen had nothing else to offer (or perhaps just wanted to get the hell out of there, a wise move).

Because of this, “Borat” gets stuck relying on an increasing amount of faked footage. A drive with a handful of drunk frat boys spouting misogynistic rhetoric, a slapstick scene set in an antique shop (in which Borat “accidentally” breaks things), an uncomfortable meeting with Pamela Anderson, etc. These bits are poorly staged, unconvincing, and unfunny, and it shows just how desperate Cohen is for his premise to work - he’s forced to come up with people to mock, because his other targets just aren’t hitting the right notes for what he wants. Again: lazy.

[Update: Since posting this review, it has been revealed through several sources that I was right about Anderson, wrong about the shop owner, and in between on the frat boys, who have gone public with how they were chosen from a larger group of frat boys, liquored up, and told what to do; their words, however, were all them, all real. I will admit an error in jumping the gun and assuming more in this film was staged than actually was, but I also remain steadfast in believing that a good comic wouldn’t need to go through all that effort. Plus, the film presents them as more legitimate than they are, which again shows a desperation to show Cohen as being funnier on-the-fly than he really is.]

The rest of the film is filled with scripted idiocy regarding Borat’s quest to meet Anderson, his falling out with his producer (Ken Davitian), a possible romance with an overweight, black prostitute (whose very appearance is supposed to be side-splitting, because when you run out of jokes, toss in a fat black hooker, I suppose). There is also a running gag about Borat driving an ice cream truck across the nation, sometimes with a bear. All of this material is clumsily edited and poorly acted, with the occasional heavy reliance on nudity and gay jokes for cheap comic effect. With “Borat,” we can see Cohen nervously sweating in comic desperation.

The biggest tell in all of the film, however, comes early, in an interview with Alan Keyes - yes, that Alan Keyes. Knowing what we know of Keyes’ politics, a conversation with Borat about the nature of homosexuality should be a comedy goldmine - just let Keyes talk and your jokes are in the bag. Cohen’s set-up is to have Borat explain a gay experience he didn’t know was a gay experience, and see how Keyes reacts. Should be solid; Keyes’ manic anti-gay rants are always worthy a guffaw or three. But no, all we get is Keyes telling Borat that he’s met a couple of gay men, and then cut to the next scene.

That’s it? That’s all Cohen and his crew can milk out of the moment? Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Cohen truly is a black hole of comedy. Not even Keyes’ own stupidity can escape to deliver us a laugh.

This must explain why all of his pre-movie media appearances (in which Cohen insisted on remaining in the Borat character) have been overly scripted, rehashing the same three jokes over and over on every network. The man just can’t do funny on the fly - which is death for a movie that’s designed to be all about doing funny on the fly. Sure, the movie itself is a mess all over, but it’s Cohen’s mix of ineptitude and laziness that propels this to become one of the worst comedies in recent memory.

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