The hysterically hyped Borat is not the funniest movie ever made. It’s not a masterpiece, a brilliant work of art, or even a comedy for the ages, but it does contain scenes of mad power, primarily in their ability to crucify ugly Americanism on the cross of its own design. Sacha Baron Cohen — mimic, performance artist, comedian — plays Borat Sagdiyev, a wide-eyed idiot from Kazakhstan, who visits the United States in order to make a documentary about his travels, only to end up in love with Pamela Anderson, who just happens to be in California for an autograph session. So rather than stay in New York, Borat and his blubbery partner Azamat (Ken Davitian) hit the road in an ice cream truck (they will not fly because they believe the Jews might plot “another” 9/11), stopping along the way to offend, appall, and shock dimwitted Americans of all shapes and sizes. And yet, the people they meet are red-staters, even if it would seem that there’s nothing left to say about the sort of people who now take pride in the very things for which they’ve always been criticized. More than that, no one — especially a fearless comic talent — should ever waste an opportunity to rub salt in open wounds, especially when they’re self-inflicted. Then and now, we have it coming.
One assumes that most of what we see is authentic, and that the victims of the assorted pranks weren’t in on the joke until filming was completed, but given the obviously staged nature of Anderson’s attempted kidnapping near the end, one must question what came before. Most of the scenes ring true, especially those involving Borat’s appearances in public settings, but I’m not entirely convinced that some of the interviews — including two with Congressman Bob Barr and Alan Keyes, respectively — weren’t a bit scripted, or at least “managed”. And those particular interactions aren’t where the interest lies anyway, because both men have already been discredited as lunatics. Whatever they might say at this point would only serve to bring them back from a now well-deserved obscurity. Did Cohen have access to anyone else? Politicians who might be a little more, well, topical? Perhaps that’s the point: Borat is so lame-brained that he takes the words of two now retired creeps as reflective of American political thought.
So yes, Cohen is much like Andy Kaufman — always fucking with our minds and never showing his hand — though unlike the late Dadaist, he’s much more overtly political, or at least self-consciously aware of his pointed social commentary. Each act of revolting or aberrant behavior, as juvenile as it can often be, has a point; either to highlight our ignorance of Eurasia (don’t they all believe in incest or collect shit in baggies?) or, as in the case of that very shit, to demonstrate that for some members of the current Southern aristocracy, a man not understanding that fecal matter is to be flushed rather than brought to the dinner table, is less offensive than that same man inviting a black woman as his guest. Sure, that woman was a whore (with an outfit to match), but the nature of the discomfort speaks to a racism that continues to permeate a Dixie thought “reformed” after the bloodbath of the 1960s (these people live on Secession Drive, for fuck’s sake). From top to bottom (whether it’s a woman “teaching” Borat how to use the toilet, or Borat himself flattering the ladies, only to punctuate his good cheer with a brutal insult), the extended scene is one of the film’s best, and serves to remind us of how great the movie could have been if it had stuck to these clear lines of attack.
Another great scene is the ride with the South Carolina frat boys; a bunch of all-American nitwits who should horrify us all, though I kept thinking that someone keeps bringing these fuckers to orgasm. Borat shares a few brews, watches the Pam Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape (where he is disillusioned by Pam’s lack of purity, leading him to seek succor at a wild Pentecostal gathering, where he speaks in tongues with great hilarity), and listens with great interest to their theories about women and race. As expected, the louts harbor a deep misogyny, hating women for being robotic sex objects, even if that’s the only way they’re comfortable conceiving of them. And of course, such dehumanization walks hand in hand with an almost celebratory homoeroticism, which is usually expressed by hugs, high-fives, and endless wrestling matches that purport to be to good-natured ribbing. Two of the pricks even reveal their resentment of minorities, offering the preposterous notion that non-whites have more power in this country, a conspiratorial arrangement financed and dictated by the age-old Jewish bogeyman. No one of sound mind is surprised that many of our fellow citizens failed to evolve beyond primitive hillbilly ways, even 40+ years after the triumph of the Civil Rights Act, but it always manages to jolt when so many admit these feelings so freely. But that’s why Cohen’s creation is so ingenious: he puts people at ease because of his silly accent and apparent ignorance, only to be setting them up for a great fall. A more “reasonable” personality would never have been able to extract such confessions.
Borat’s appearance at a rodeo is another case in point. He’s there to sing his nation’s national anthem (set to the music of America’s), but before his appearance, he chats with a good ol’ boy who is all-too-typical of his class, region, and persuasion. Borat speaks of his country’s vicious intolerance of homosexuality, which includes a final walk to the gallows. Without hesitation, the cracker cheerfully informs Borat that “we” are trying to do the same thing here. His use of “we” is curious in that he substitutes his own hatred for that of millions, but it’s also reflective of a darker truth — speaking for others is, in this case, not at all unfair. Pushed to the brink, or disarmed by a zany foreigner, a good slice of America would advocate just such a fate for gays and lesbians, respected Pastor or not. Political correctness may have forced a unnatural gentility and sensitivity into the language, but the bigotry hasn’t budged an inch. It’s unlikely that anyone could get away with George Wallace talk on the stump these days, but why else adopt phrases like “tough on crime” unless to wink at the same racists who once went wild for Bull Connor and his fat-bellied Klansmen? Cohen’s wise enough to show us our foibles and dare us to laugh. We do, though I wonder how many roaring with delight did so to cover for their own complicity.
The rodeo also brought forth the familiar, though no less necessary image of American jingoism. As Borat screamed in favor of President Bush’s “war of terror” and the hope that he would soon be drinking the blood of Iraqi men, women, and children, the crowd cheered, whistled, and bellowed as if at the Super Bowl. It’s the same illogic that went into the idea that a country must be destroyed in order to save it. After all — there are actually people in this country who would be content to murder every last Iraqi because then, and only then, could we declare victory and go home. It’s further proof that for all the rhetoric about the lives of “the people” post-Saddam, we really don’t give a shit about carnage that doesn’t end with a flag-draped coffin being deposited in an American cemetery. It should also be no surprise that the gathering of fools doesn’t begin to boo and hiss until Borat starts butchering the song. A celebration of mass murder is all well and good, but fuck up “our” anthem and we’ll have your head.
Other scenes — like the truly nutty nude wrestling between Borat and Azamat — had their moments, but failed to add to the overall vision. Cohen is brave indeed for burying his face in the ass of a repugnant hog of a man (so fat his penis was nowhere to be found), but running nude through the hotel (even interrupting a buttoned-up convention), while producing chuckles, is tired Jackass territory that undermines the effect. Whether it’s splashing toilet water in his face, or walking casually while wearing a lime green bathing suit (though “suit” is hardly what the contraption appears to be), these less significant moments were mere breaks in the action; fodder for the high school kids, but irrelevant as anything else. Enough of these “fish out of water” moments added up to wasted time, but by no means were they fatal. They merely point to the unavoidable truth that Borat, though only 83 minutes long as it is, could have been even shorter, perhaps as an addition to his HBO show. An interview with a “humor specialist” goes absolutely nowhere, an allegedly inspired bit involving a bed and breakfast owned by an elderly Jewish couple comes off as forced and obvious (Jews love money, har-har), and the nonsense with the bear could have been excised with no one the wiser. So yes, it’s a jumbled, uneven piece, but how often are we treated to a gun nut who is able to recommend the best weaponry for felling Jews? A 9mm or Glock automatic, in case you’re interested.