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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America..." (2006)

I’ve never seen anything quite like the Borat movie. It stunned me. That’s not a word one would normally use to describe a comedy, but it’s the one word that first springs to mind when people ask me about this film. It’s stunning. Part road movie, part buddy comedy, part documentary, part fish-out-of-water, part Michael Moore expose, part Andy Kaufman pranksterism and part “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with elements of improv, satire, slapstick, verbal jousting, absurdist humor and sight gags to spare. There is nothing this movie doesn’t attempt for a laugh. After seeing the film, Judd Apatow was recently quoted as saying “I feel like someone just played Sgt. Pepper for the first film in my life.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

In fact, I can’t say much, because that would spoil it. I’ve been telling people not to read reviews or articles in advance of the film, because such writings might come dangerously close to revealing too much. Big surprises lurk within the Borat film, surprises that will be talked about for years. I promise not to discuss them here, but you will know them when you see them. One is brave, audacious and unthinkable, another disturbing and questionable in terms of how it actually happened. Okay, I should stop right there.

So, why write a review if I want people to not read them? Because I love it too much to not write about it. Borat is the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, an English comedian whose Ali G character (a thick-headed hip-hop rapper wannabe talk show host who has interviewed the likes of Donald Trump, Buzz Aldren and James Lipton) has been a sensation on HBO. Where Ali G interviews famous American figures without them knowing they’re in on a big joke, Borat—a TV reporter from Kazakhstan—looks at American customs through the eyes of an unknowingly racist, anti-Semitic and sexist documentarian with an askew view of even his own country.

In the movie, Borat travels to America and maintains the format of the HBO show. In your typical episode, Borat visits a group of people—say, a feminist league, a dating service or a car salesman—who accept him as this sweet, naïve and curious reporter from a distant country here to learn about our culture, hence the film’s full and hilarious title, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Eventually, Borat reveals his true colors to the stunned, bewildered and unbelievably polite victims. For instance, when he meets someone for the first time, he might say (in typical broken English), “You meet my sister one day.”

“Yes, I’d like to,” the person might say.

“She number two prostitute in all of Kazakhstan,” he says with great pride.

“Oh…really,” the other person might say, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.

But the Borat movie does more than stretch out the concept for 82 minutes. It actually uses this improvisational format to tell a story (such as it is), one that I feel I should also keep secret. It’s a relatively thin storyline, but for this movie and its unusual format, it’s perfect. As I said, it’s a road movie and Borat travels with another Kazak, a portly older man named Azamat (Ken Davitian), who remains as fearless and in on the joke as Cohen. After a brief stay in New York, the two travel across the country (mainly the south) in a rustic ice cream truck. Borat and Azamat fear one thing more than anything else: Jews. They avoid them, ridicule them and have treated them with disdain in their own home country “ever since what the Jews did on 9/11.” For the record, Cohen himself is Jewish.

Because of Borat’s seemingly harmless exterior, he manages to expose America’s ignorance and ugly intolerance with the greatest of ease. When Borat visits with a man at a rodeo and talks about how in his country, homosexuals are put to death, the man agrees with this treatment and actually states that “that’s what we’re trying to do here in America.” None of this is scripted. Nobody was ever told they would be in a major Hollywood film. Director Larry Charles employed a small crew with small cameras, so as not to look as though they were making a real film. Even 20th Century Fox kept this film off their production roster for a long period of time.

But Cohen and Charles also make the audience part of the joke. I suspect many people who attend this film will not know that Cohen is Jewish. I got the sense of this when I saw it with a large audience a month before the film came out. When Cohen describes African American politician Alan Keyes as “a chocolate looking man,” you could feel the audience wince and question whether or not they should laugh. Cohen wants to make everyone feel uncomfortable with his antics, not just the ignoramuses on screen. Again, for the record, I sat next to a Jewish film critic who laughed his butt off the entire time.

The other masterstroke of the film occurs later on. The film turns surprisingly sweet and goes an extra mile to turn what could have been just a series of gags into something more complete. I did not expect this film to have much of an arch to it at all. It didn’t have to. It could have easily coasted on the show’s format and be just as funny, but the fact that they had more ambition for this project says a lot about how much respect they have for a moviegoing audience.

Finally, I’ll just say that this is the funniest movie in many years. It’s relentless. I’ve been waiting for over a month for the film to come out so I can take everyone I know to see it, especially those who have never heard of Borat. I hesitate to throw too much hype towards any film, but there seem to be so few movies that can redefine what a movie should be, whether it be an action film, a horror film or a comedy. I can’t imagine Borat not becoming a classic. I can’t imagine living in a world in 2026 where people won’t stop to say, “It was 20 years ago today…”

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