Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

THE QUICK HIT: Hapless Kazak TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev is sent to the U.S. to discover why America is so great, with the resulting documentary intended to improve life in Kazakhstan. An encounter with Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson on a hotel TV derails Borat’s plans to remain in New York City, sending him and filmer/producer Azamat Bagatov on a road trip through the U.S. heartland in an ice cream truck in search of her. Borat’s a seeming innocent “stranger in a strange land” who often charms and then alarms those not in on the joke.

THE BIG PICTURE: Sacha Baron Cohen has studied at the Spinal Tap school: if you’re going to make a mockumentary, go all the way. Borat! opens in the rural impoverished village of Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen), Kazakh film titles quickly stamped over with low-budget-looking English ones. It’s only after gazing at this rather National Geographic scene that we notice robust peasant women pulling plows, as well as a woman pulling some men in a cart as though she were a beast of burden. No it’s not subtle, but the delivery is dead-eye!

While the visibly proud Borat treats us to a bragging list including a sister who is the number-four prostitute in the region (she proudly holds up a trophy), it isn’t until he and his somber, rotund sidekick Azamat (Ken Davitian) hit the United States that the real howls erupt. Borat attempts to kiss men in NYC hello, the live chicken in his suitcase gets loose on the subway, and he is an utterly dreadful guest on a U.S. news show, attempting to chat up the weatherman while he is on camera. This mildly humorous pestering is good for some chuckles. But then Borat signs up for a lesson in decorum, and you can see the genius at work. Cohen begins with an innocent enough line, and when accepted by his unsuspecting audience, he goes a little farther. Such as asking the etiquette instructor if he should show photos of his family to people he meets. “Yes!” she answers brightly. Then he produces a photo of a nude teenage boy, his face leering beside the torso. “Well maybe not this photo,” the woman says, still trying to be understanding and nonjudgmental of the foreigner.

And this fairly plot-lite film does have a couple types of humor: nice people who are pushed so hard by Borat that they have to be rude—and racist, sexist, backwater hacks caught on tape agreeing with the dreadful things Borat espouses. Such as his intense fear and hatred of Jews, when Cohen is actually Jewish!

Because we are in on the joke, viewers can laugh loudly and without guilt at Borat. Besides, where else will you see such graphic nude male wrestling onscreen? Cohen is really a wonderful physical comedian in addition to his sharp wit and ability to create outrageous humor extemporaneously.

TECHNICAL MUMBO-JUMBO: This film created a buzz long before its release, with sneak previews at the 2006 San Diego ComiCon and Toronto Film Festival—the fest where Michael Moore attempted to fix the broken projector to no avail. Although released on fewer than 1,000 screens opening weekend, Borat! raked in a stunning $26.4 million.

Grade: A-

DIRECTOR: Larry Charles
CAST: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson

Review by Sha Harrison