'Borat' long on laughs, short on 'cultural learnings'

Posted: Nov 22, 2006 3:01 PM
'Borat' long on laughs, short on 'cultural learnings'

Sacha Baron Cohen, the Orthodox Jewish comedian from England, has an uncanny ability to make suckers of us all. Case in point: I'm giving even more free publicity to "Borat," the most overpublicized comedy in modern memory.

As you undoubtedly know by now, Cohen plays Borat, a television reporter in Kazakhstan - absurdly depicted as a land where the mentally handicapped are kept in cages, all sisters are for sale (Borat's is the "number-four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan"), and fermented horse urine is the cocktail of choice. Borat is asked by his government to visit the United States and report what he finds for the betterment of all Kazakhs. Hence the full title: "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." So Cohen, never breaking character as a sexist, anti-Semitic yokel from beyond the Urals, catches unsuspecting Americans off guard.

His fumbling antics are inflicted on Americans desperate to be accommodating and polite, even when that means overlooking boorishness to the point of tolerating (alleged) bigotry. Though with the exception of some fraternity brothers from South Carolina, he seems unable to elicit a single American actually saying anything horribly racist or sexist. His hapless victims merely commit the sin of not sufficiently correcting the foreign naif with a thick accent.

Some of the scenes are hilarious, others not so much. But none of it approaches "revolutionary" status, as several critics have suggested. Rolling Stone magazine wonders whether Cohen has created a "whole new genre of film."

We are now well into the second decade of the reality-TV era. MTV's "Punk'd" and "Jackass" play many of the same bull-in-a-china-shop pranks as "Borat." Michael Moore rose to fame catching people off guard and pulling similar stunts. Hidden cameras and undercover reporters are staples of news-magazine shows and have been for a generation. I'm still confused about why so many people think reality TV itself is new. Does no one remember "Candid Camera"? As for the wide-eyed immigrant in a foreign land routine, that's hardly a new act either. Andy Kaufman's Latka Gravas, made famous on "Taxi," beat "Borat" to the punch by decades.

Cohen does put a funny new twist on the routine, and he can be brilliant at it, but judging from the reaction to "Borat," you'd think he'd invented the comedic equivalent of warp drive or something.

Cohen's success stems in part from the fact that he never lets on what his movie is really "about." Unlike Michael Moore - who, just for the record, isn't a fraction as talented as Cohen - Cohen never made himself available to interviewers when promoting the movie. He always appeared as Borat, which made it impossible to ask Cohen what he really thinks of America, what the "message" of the film is or how realistic his "reality" film is. This was a brilliant marketing ploy, and the TV press eagerly played themselves for suckers. Imagine if, say, Cookie Monster started spewing racial epithets on "Sesame Street" and, in response to the controversy, the producers allowed Cookie Monster to do all the talking at the press conference.

Similarly, Cohen refuses to divulge his "methods" - an easy trick when Cohen himself rarely appears at his own interviews - so audiences and critics are free to believe that "Borat" is far more real than it really is. Some of the scenes in the movie are transparently staged. Others must be highly pre-produced. All of it is heavily edited for effect. Yet, some people, including European critics, delight in how "Borat" reveals the bigoted underside of the "real" America.

This is nonsense on stilts. Cohen undoubtedly shot thousands of hours of footage, and he picked the funniest bits, not the most representative ones. Even so, as Christopher Hitchens noted recently in Slate, most of the Americans - save for some cranky feminists - are polite to a fault with Borat. One Southern lady takes her guest to the bathroom to explain how to use the toilet and toilet paper - only after Borat has brought a plastic bag full of what those tools are intended to deal with. Do we really believe the French would be even more accommodating?

Meanwhile, Borat's more conservative defenders hail the film's allegedly implicit critique of political correctness. But this is a hard case to make when Borat's victims are almost all demons in the politically correct pantheon (Christians, rednecks, et al.). Borat never visits, say, Muslims who might sincerely return Borat's high-fives for Jew hatred.

In short, "Borat" isn't as revolutionary or "transgressive" as its fans claim. It's just a funny movie. And that should be enough.