Overdosing on Borat

October 06, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Somewhere under all the hype, buried beneath the screening invitations to the President, the comments by the Anti-Defamation League, and the press releases from Kazakhstan, there is a movie. However, it's getting difficult to remember that. Borat is what it is: a vulgar comedy that is often amusing and occasionally uproarious. It's not great art and it's unlikely to be a big hit. The attention it is getting is out of proportion with what shows up on screen.

Hype like this creates two attendant problems, both related to each other. The first is the risk of overexposure. Although Snakes on a Plane faced a different series of problems (the least of which was that it was a bad movie), this is one of the things that happened. Outside a small, loyal following (who were more into the SOAP "experience" than the movie itself), no one saw Snakes on a Plane because the strident media coverage had exhausted all possible interest. There's a fine line between getting people to know about a film and overexposing it. Borat is in danger of crossing that line. Interest has already peaked, and the release date is a month away. The idea is to strike while the iron is hot (which it is now), not four weeks later. By early November, Borat will be yesterday's news and the majority of potential movie-goers either won't care about it or will be bored by it. You would be surprised to know how many people I run into who think it's opening today.

The second problem is a backlash. This happens when a highly touted movie doesn't meet mainstream expectations. The more hype a movie gets, the less likely it is to be well received. Consider The Blair Witch Project. As a small indie horror film, it did incredibly well and the word-of-mouth had weekend showings selling out a week in advance. Then Artisan took it wide, bringing it into the multiplex world, and it turned from sensation to dog overnight. Sure, it made some extra money, but mainstream audiences hated it. The Blair Witch phenomenon, which could have been nurtured for weeks or months in limited venues, popped like an overfilled balloon. Borat could be headed down the same road. The hype touts it as "the funniest movie of all time," but no movie can live up to that.

I like Borat. I can deal with the anti-Semitic aspects of the comedy because I know Sascha Baron Cohen is a Jew and I don't mind politically incorrect humor. He's poking fun at stereotypes, not buying into them. I think the movie is sloppy at times and inconsistent, but the laughter compensates for other problems. But the hype is grating, and the movie is being given so many advance screenings one wonders if there's going to be anyone left willing to pay for admission. As for the "insulting" portrayal of Kazakstan, consider this: most of the members of Borat's target audience probably don't even know that a country called "Kazakhstan" exists. Any publicity, as they say, is good publicity. Borat may not paint the most flattering portrayal of Kazakhstan, but how many people view it as a vacation destination?

Borat will probably do okay at the box office. College age kids will flock to see it (although probably not in the hoped-for numbers), but it will get a tepid reaction from other quarters. It has, however, reached a tipping point where additional guerilla promotion will start turning people off. Let the pre-release Borat furor die down, then trumpet it again when it opens. Otherwise, you end up with the marketing equivalent of premature ejaculation. By the time Borat is ready, the audience will be spent and have lost interest.