Borat (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Overwhelmingly positive word of mouth can be a double-edged sword for a filmmaker. Although effusive praise builds anticipation, it can also elevate expectations to levels that cannot possibly be met. This is why some viewers who see a movie after it has won a Best Picture Oscar emerge disappointed. It also explains why some late-comers to Borat may find it to be less hilarious than expected. Don't misunderstand: Borat is a funny movie, and well worth the price of admission regardless of whether your comedy tastes run to low-brow, scatological humor or more subtle politically tinged satire. However, it's hard for any movie to live up to the hype when it's being billed as "the funniest of all-time."

The full name of the film is the intentionally unwieldy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This is the only time during the review you will see it referred to by that title. This represents an opportunity for Sacha Baron Cohen to bring one of his three popular personalities from Da Ali G. Show to the big screen. The character Borat is pretty much the same as he is on TV, only here he is allowed room to grow and display how truly moronic he is. Of course, that's the point. Borat is a fish out of water, except the fish never figures out he's stuck on dry land. Borat is like an unlikely marriage between Monty Python and Tom Green.

Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) is a Kazakhstani TV personality who travels to America to make a documentary record of his exploration of American culture. He is accompanied on this endeavor by his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian). Once in New York City, Borat navigates the hurdles of settling into his hotel room then discovers Baywatch on late-night TV. He is immediately smitten by a certain blonde in a bathing suit and decides to take a road trip to California to meet her. This episodic journey takes him to Washington D.C., Atlanta, through the Deep South to Dallas, then finally out to Los Angeles. Along the way, he meets characters who are stranger than he is, adopts a pet bear, and gets into a nude wrestling match with his compatriot. That sequence alone is worth the price of admission since it's like a naked Groucho Marx (with an exaggeratedly long black cylinder obscuring his penis) doing battle with an unclothed Fat Bastard.

Does Borat find love in the arms of Pamela Anderson? How does he react upon learning that his would-be virginal bride is best known for a role played opposite Tommy Lee? Will his wife "break [his] cock" upon learning that he's chasing another woman? How much gas does 17 cents buy? And will he ever figure out what a toilet is for? All these questions, and many more, are addressed during the course of Borat.

Political incorrectness is the watchword here. It has already been documented that the humorless government of Kazakhstan is offended by Borat, although the film is far more incisive in its dissection of American culture than that of Kazakhstan. Borat flaunts its main character's anti-Semitic and misogynistic views. There are copious amounts of nudity - all of it male and some of it explicit. One wonders what persuaded the MPAA to dole out an R; is it possible they found Borat funny?

Borat is a mixture of staged set pieces and real interviews (in which Cohen adopts the Borat persona and the subjects of the interview are unaware he is an actor). It can turn the movie into something of an intellectual game as viewers attempt to deconstruct the proceedings and determine what's "real" and what isn't. No one involved in the production is talking, including Cohen (who does all movie-related interviews as Borat). The only statement on record from director Larry Charles (Curb Your Enthusiasm) is that "it's all real."

It's hard to imagine anyone watching Borat and not finding at least a few of its jokes funny. The subject matter is so far-ranging - everything from jabs at George Bush to the scatological and sexual stand-bys - that it's difficult to imagine Cohen completely missing anyone's funny bone. However, those who are prone to be offended by comedy with a rough edge may not be impressed. One of Cohen's objectives is to push against boundaries of taste and decency. When that works, Borat delivers some of its biggest laughs. There's a message underlying all of this about the foolishness of bigotry of all sorts. Those who practice anti-Semitism and racism during the course of Borat (including the title character) are shown to be the biggest morons.

Is Borat the funniest comedy of the year? Almost certainly - but what's the competition? (Other than Clerks II, I can't come up with anything close.) One of the reasons Borat works is because it doesn't belabor its jokes. It delivers the punch-lines then moves on. The movie is set up as a road trip, but each stop over has its own set of characters and comedic set pieces. The variation keeps things fresh and the relatively short running length (less than 90 minutes) ensures that Borat doesn't overstay its welcome - even though when it's all done, we wish this absurd man might have lingered a little longer.

Borat (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:22
U.S. Release Date: 2006-11-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1