Movie review by Greg Carlson
As Borat Sagdiyev, a coarse, socially awkward TV reporter who hails from Kazakhstan, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen shines a light on all manner of prejudice, from racism to anti-Semitism, homophobia to misogyny. That he does so by parading as a moronic but earnest correspondent helps him to attract unsuspecting marks like flies; these days, everyone wants a shot to be on television, even if the broadcast is planned for central Eurasia. Many have already compared Cohen to Peter Sellers, and the description is apt. The young performer, like the great Sellers, is a ridiculously gifted humorist willing to commit so totally to his creations he manages to fool audience members despite primary screen credit indicating it is all make believe.
In “Borat” Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Cohen retools a number of the sketches he had already perfected on “Da Ali G Show” and “The 11 O’Clock Show,” which means that longtime fans will not only recognize the sources of some of the movie’s best material, they will also reluctantly say goodbye to the cult status of Borat. Like Cohen’s other characters, the success of the Borat character is predicated on the ability to convince the other people who appear with him on camera that he is for real. The more fame Borat attains, the fewer people are likely to fall for his trap.
While that scenario has already taken some of the wind out of Ali G’s sails, audiences new to Borat will be treated to one of the most thoroughly funny films of the last several years. Blending a range of comic styles, including vicious social satire, broad slapstick, and all sorts of straight-faced gags at the expense of the folks foolish enough to have signed a release form, “Borat” thrives on transgression and inappropriateness. Reports of walkouts over matters of taste aren’t likely to diminish ticket sales. Young men in particular seem to have an unquenchable thirst for jokes involving fecal matter and male nudity.
Cohen’s clumsy, libidinous Borat largely avoids the creep factor by amplifying his sense of childlike innocence, even when publicly masturbating or asking a car salesman where the “pussy magnet” is located on the auto he clearly cannot afford. “Borat” packs in dozens and dozens of side-splitting moments, with Cohen’s mangled English providing the cherry on the sundae nearly every time. Visits to rodeos, antique shops, and genteel dinner parties invariably end in disaster and/or humiliation.
The likely secret to the success of the Borat character is his ability to take advantage of the way in which Americans hospitably tolerate their alien guest. Getting rednecks and drunken frat boys to spew out all kinds of disgusting rubbish is almost too easy for Cohen, but even with the kindlier folks he meets, like the driving instructor and the dinner party host, Cohen manages to push past limits. Fortunately, Cohen never prioritizes his political agenda over the belly laughs that accompany the lewdest displays he can concoct. The approach delivers something for everyone, and the thought of teenage “Jackass” aficionados in cinematic communion with well-educated culture vultures is a testament to Cohen’s prodigious skill.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/13/06.