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Movie Review: 'Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan'
2006-11-05 23:59
by Ryan Wilkins

It should come as no surprise to anyone with an Internet connection or a mild familiarity with American popular culture that the new film based on Sacha Baron Cohen's character "Borat Sagdiev" -- winkingly titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan -- is uproariously, pants-wettingly funny. Extracted from perhaps the most hilarious show ever to hit U.S. television (Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show), and filmed over the course of a year with writers like Patton Oswalt lending a helping hand, it would have taken an anti-miracle for this project, directed by Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm alum Larry Charles, to result in a lifeless dud.

And yet, despite all the laughs that Baron Cohen provides, I still can't shake some of the disappointment I feel over the film, even six weeks after attending the San Francisco black-carpet screening in which the film's eponymous hero appeared as a guest. Yes, Borat is sidesplitting, but it's also hollow in a way that the HBO show's brief sketches are not. As a satire this film is closer to a facile product like South Park than something brilliant like, say, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Of course, now that half the audience has stopped reading because it's clear that I'm a no-fun curmudgeon, I should acknowledge what a ridiculous standard that is. But like it or not, that's the standard Baron Cohen has set for himself with Ali G -- a gut-busting 30-minute farce that often contains some of the best, most incisive cultural criticism this side of whatever Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are doing this week. In the pantheon of comedic genius, it's somewhere between George Carlin and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Enjoy Borat while you can. Annoying frat boys will be ruining his best catch-phrases in three... two... one...

Some of what keeps Borat from ascending to those heights is conventionality. Unlike the HBO show, the film employs an actual plot (however thin) and another actor (played by the rotund Ken Davitian) who pretends to be from Kazakhstan, like Baron Cohen. These additions might not sound like much, but they're the biggest reason why the film stops dead every few minutes, as both characters are forced to act out weak dialogue in order to move the story forward. Unlike his segments in Da Ali G Show where the audience only sees Borat in "news footage," the film gives us plenty of "off-camera" time with the Kazakh reporter -- where there's a deliberate attempt to develop his character -- and it's never particularly funny.

The reasons why these "off-camera" sections flounder are interesting, because they give insight into why HBO's Borat segments work so well. On one level, it's a point-of-view issue. Traditional Borat sketches involve what someone who just spent 30 minutes on the Wikipedia learning about semiotics might call a "triangular performer/audience dynamic": First there's Borat, making outrageous comments strictly for the sake of generating a reaction. Then there's his victim, not "in" on the greater joke (that this is all fake), reacting. And then there's us, the audience, who gets to laugh at both Baron Cohen's audacity and the victim's cringe-worthy response. This dynamic is the hallmark of all the famous Ali G segments, from Borat's "Throw the Jew down the well" to Bruno's "P-A-R-T-Y."

Needless to say, the film contains a variety of stretches -- from the protracted opening in Kazakhstan to almost every moment filmed inside the reporter's van -- that only work with two of these levels in mind. Jokes are told directly to the camera in a way that's not common to the TV show, and the audience is asked to laugh all the same. The problem is, without a "victim," they're only 67 percent as funny. We're missing the "cringe element" that takes them into the stratosphere.

That Borat needs "victims" in order to make his humor work in full force is one of the most delicate issues of the film. Some critics have skirted it by claiming that A) Borat is ultimately satire, B) satire needs to be cutting, and C) his victims deserve what they get.

They're half-right about the last point. Some of Borat's victims do bring everything on themselves. From the old man at the rodeo who applauds "Kahzahkstan"'s stance on homosexuals (according to Borat, they're lynched) to the group of South Carolina frat boys who openly pine for slavery and women who are only used for sex, there are some truly ugly souls in this film. But not all of Baron Cohen's victims are awful caricatures. In fact, for every mouth-breathing southerner who probably spent his youth on the set of Hee-Haw, there are people who genuinely want to help this stranger in a strange land find his way. This doesn't make Borat's description of a pastor's wife as "not so" appealing to Kazakh men any less funny, but it leaves a queasy feeling in my stomach because it's undeserved.

Borat also falters because of a lack of a consistent delivery. Half the time we're seeing canned, sitcom-like dialogue between fictional characters on a fictional quest, and the other half we're watching guerilla video of the most dynamic performance-comedian since Andy Kaufman. The incongruence is jarring.

And worse yet, it results in an audience that's always guessing if what they're seeing is real or if it's fake. This is particularly apparent during scene where Borat and his producer, Azamat, add a full-grown bear to their caravan. While the stunt is certainly shocking, the staging is clumsy and I couldn't help but wonder if this section was also scripted, like so much of the dialogue and plot movement. The sometimes-genuine sometimes-bogus dichotomy in Borat is a real downer, reducing parts of Baron Cohen's film to a product far less ambitious than its inspiration, like an episode of Jackass. (Or maybe Boiling Points. Either way, a Sunday Stew reference seems appropriate here.)

Now that extended digression is finally over, it's important to note the second element that keeps Borat from being a satirical masterpiece -- and that's his target, or lack thereof.

Is it America? Middle-America? Backwards-thinking foreigners? The whole shebang? The subject of Borat's jokes are varied. Like the writers of South Park, Baron Cohen is an equal-opportunity offender. Nevertheless, his lack of focus hurts any grand claims of social commentary, because Baron Cohen is saying everything and nothing at once. Like Mel Brooks, he seems mainly in it for the joke. Getting us to laugh is his only goal.

And that's okay. In fact, I can't overstate just how okay that is, because Borat is the funniest movie I've seen in years. The film is like the grand fight sequence in Anchorman writ large: inspired, absurd and over-the-top. Baron Cohen even saves his most shocking stunt for last -- a sequence that, regardless of its authenticity, will redefine the way our country sees Borders book signings forever more.

But unlike the show, which is parsed into five-minute segments, always with a specific theme in mind, Borat lacks the truly satirical punch of its inspiration. Part of this is due to the extended format that doesn't cater to a laser-like focus. But part is also due to Baron Cohen's aim, which is clearly to entertain as wide of an audience as possible. Despite all the claims about Borat being an elitist exercise, there's very little here that will go over a 16-year-old's head.

And let me state again: There's nothing wrong with that. A laugh is a laugh, and Borat earns many. But any commentator letting you believe there's more to Baron Cohen's film is falling into a trap. Where so many of Borat's victims assume too little about this man, his supporters are making the opposite mistake: they assume too much.


Ryan Wilkins is a San Francisco-based writer. By day he's the senior editor of, the stock market for sports.

2006-11-05 20:34:30
1.   WellsforKemp
this is exactly how I felt about the movie..... I was interested in it only because of the Ali G show being IMO the best show on TV (although maybe its not TV it HBO) and while its still a great movie I would see again, I feel too much plot took away from what I love about Borat, unrehersed comedy.

in addition, there are plenty of good parts on YouTube among others probably cut in favor of plot, either that or check out the DVD I would assume

2006-11-05 21:05:55
2.   FirstMohican
the scripting did strike me as odd at first. but if it weren't for the scripting, I wouldn't have seen the funniest thing I can remember seeing (the running of the jew).

what did bother me the most was that the final scene is hard for me to believe. if it is fake, which i think it is, it compromises the show. i don't want to watch his characters' adventures from here on out and second guess the authenticity.

2006-11-05 22:34:56
3.   Scott Long
Haven't seen the movie, so I won't comment on it specifically, but I was interested in something Ryan wrote about Borat being somewhat hollow compared to Cohen's previous work.

As someone who is involved in the comedy business on a much smaller stage, I still feel qualified to mention that strong political satire rarely works on a larger commercial scale.

Sure Stewart and Colbert are brilliant at what they do and receive large media coverage, but their ratings are not that spectacular. Ali G's show when shown in this country on HBO never did well in this category, either.

I can't name you a standup comic who has come on the scene in the past 10 years who is focused on political satire. The comics you think of when this genre is discussed are guys like Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, George Carlin, Marc Maron, Will Durst. All guys who have been around for quite a long time.

I do about 5-10 minutes a night on topics that would fit the description of political satire and haven't worked with anyone who has done more in the past 10 years.

The reason for this lack of fresh comedic voices taking on the government would be that most of the under 30 crowd doesn't have much interest at all in political comedy. Considering the PC levels being off the charts at the major public universtity's, it is not too surprising that this would be the case.

NACA, the agency that books most acts for college performances doesn't want anyone with a strong point of view on stage, let alone someone who pushes the edge. Some of the most popular acts on college campuses are comedians who use props or talk like a duck for a portion of their show.

Since I know Ryan just a little bit, I am biased/enlightened to something that shapes my thoughts on what he has written above. Jim Gaffigan is a christ-like figure to Ryan. Now Gaffigan to me might be the most prolific comic there is in the business today and I rate him as one of the 10 best standups I've heard, but Gaffigan is the epitome of having an act about nothing of any political substance. He makes Jerry Seinfeld seem like Mort Sahl. Gaffigan definitely exposes the strangeness of our world, but he is someone who lacks social commentary. He comes from the school of comedy like Brian Regan where the silliness of a strange white guy's life is pure hilarity.

2006-11-06 04:56:46
4.   Chiron Brown
There's so much wrong with the character. Things that don't need to be examined in a short sketch but are glaring in a feature. I liked the Ali G. bits but the movie reduces Borat to a mean sprited Yakov Smirnoff.
2006-11-06 11:57:52
5.   Bluebleeder87
i've yet to see Borat but the Ali G show is pretty good.
2006-11-06 16:09:17
6.   4444
I hadn't really wrapped my head around why I was a little disappointed with the movie (but the hype/commercials-overexposure and love for the borat sketches in Da Ali G show probably helped elevate those a bit much, too), but I think you've nailed it, Ryan.
2006-11-07 20:55:59
7.   Ryan Wilkins
First, I want to thank everyone for their feedback.

FirstMohican -- You're right about "The running of the Jew." I'll admit my breakdown of Borat's comedy isn't all-encompassing, and that moment, toward the beginning of the film, is one of the biggest laughs in the 82 min. run-time. It's pure, unbridled audacity, and it works because it's not only over-the-top but also so detailed in its execution. It's not 100 percent correct to say "Borat" -- both in silver- and small-screen form -- works only when victimizing someone, and that moment is the proof.

Scott -- Obviously you're right about the large-scale financial viability of strong political satire. By definition, it's a form of comedy that doesn't track well across the board, and that's something corporations like 20th Century Fox care about pretty mightily.

That being said, as an obstensible art critic, I still feel obligated to hold the film to the show's lofty standard. It might seem a little disconnected from the realities of mass-produced comedy, but it's still the standard that SBC created for himself with "Da Ali G Show," low ratings or not. Compromises needed to be made on this film, no doubt, but there's no denying the was less biting because of that.

Of course, given "Borat"'s success this weekend at the box office, it was probably a good trade-off. So he disappoints a few hardcore fans who'll see his movie anyway -- who cares? With a huge opening and great word-of-mouth in the bank, Baron Cohen will get all the creative freedom he wants to make "Bruno" as ridiculous as possible (for what it's worth, my pet theory is that "Bruno" has the distinct potential to be an even funnier product).

It should be noted that, on the subject of Jim Gaffigan, I've always declared that I like him in spite of his lack of topical humor, not because of it. Comedians who completely avoid politics and general world events in their routine -- I'm looking at you, Dane Cook -- tend to get on my nerves. Like you say, Scott, Gaffigan makes himself an exception by employing that unique level of meta-commentary, performed done in an incredibly silly voice. Plus, Hot Pockets are just really gross. Someone should have pointed that out before.

Really, I'm more of a Patton Oswalt man than anyone else, as I think his blend of acerbic political humor and incredibly well-versed phrasings are second to none. I've seen him live four times in the last 16 months and I've always been impressed at the end of the night. (If anyone hasn't checked out his last album "Feelin' Kinda Patton," I'd suggest picking it up posthaste.)

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