I've been looking forward to the release of the Borat movie for months. I've seen several clips of the Borat character (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) on YouTube and I thought them hilarious. When I read the reviews of the movie, my eagerness was heightened. John Podhoretz, for example, writing for the Weekly Standard, declared it "one of the four or five funniest films ever made." I like Podhoretz as a reviewer and know him as a guy who doesn't say things like that without giving them at least a moment's thought. Now that I've seen the film, I have my own evaluation.
It is a funny movie. Well, many parts of it are funny and a few are truly hilarious. The funniest parts are those in which Borat himself is the butt of the joke. I loved the scene at the B&B run by a kindly Jewish couple, and the scene with the unflappable driving instructor, and the scene with the guy trying to teach Borat how to tell a not joke, as in "Borat is one of the four or five funniest films ever made - not!"
There are other elements of the movie that are simply good traditional comic writing. Borat keeps asking the salesman where the "pussy magnet" inside the Hummer is, but in the end, he can't afford a Hummer, having a more limited budget ("between $600 and $650"), so he ends up with a very used ice cream truck, complete with a serving window on the side and the ability to play "Pop goes the Weasel" through loudspeakers. Now, in addition to a means of transportation, he also needs protection from "the Jew" while in America. He can't buy a gun because he's not a citizen, so he ends up with a bear. Let's just say that these two acquisitions - ice cream truck and bear - set up a very funny moment. But as I said, it's conventional comic writing, and all in all, not nearly as funny as the scene involving a cougar in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
In many other scenes, I was more uncomfortable than amused. Podhoretz says that the movie "skewers" everybody. Not so. I've already mentioned several folks in the movie who are not skewered, and there are many more. Borat is given the chance to sing our national anthem at a rodeo, but he sings the melody of the Star Spangled Banner to the words of the (imaginary) anthem of Kazakhstan, which go something like this:
Kazakhstan is the greatest
nation on the earth.
All other nations
are governed by girls.
He goes on to talk about the superiority of Kazakhstan in the area of potassium production. The audience did not find his rendition of their national anthem amusing, and I felt the same way about the scene.
Another uncomfortable moment comes at a dinner party, where a southern family is trying its best to be hospitable to this strange guy from Kazakhstan. At one point, Borat excuses himself, and after a short while, he returns to the table after a visit to the W.C. with, um, a stool sample. Okay, it's not a sample, it's the whole stool, in a plastic bag. We are, I guess, supposed to think that there are no toilets in Kazakhstan and that he's made it to the southern U.S. without learning how to use one. This is funny, I suppose, because poo-poo is funny, and because Borat's behavior outrageous, and because it's supposed to be funny to see stuffed shirts put on the spot. But the hostess isn't a stuffed shirt, in fact, she reacts with extraordinary composure. Earlier one of the characters at the table says he is "retired." Borat thinks the man said he is a "retard." I was in early high school the last time I heard a retard joke told with the earnest expectation someone would find it funny. Ironically, the hostess treats Borat's outrage calmly and patiently, as if he were mentally handicapped. Where's the humor in that? Being outrageous is easy, once you resolve that you are going to do it and you accept the minimal risks. People with no talent at all do outrageous things when they think great money is involved, as on the television show where people would eat cockroaches without ketchup. I felt a little sorry for the dinner guests, as I did for a handful of people who tried to deal with Borat in good faith. They were victims of practical joking identical in nature to that of the the show Candid Camera from fifty years ago, except that the setups in Candid Camera were less gross.
Finally, there are scenes in which real people (well, I'm given to believe that they are real people) are caught saying things that they probably would not have said on camera had they known the movie was going to become a sensation in America. I have no pity for the frat boys, but I didn't get the joke, either. I think it's hard to tell which is their controlling vice: racism or stupidity. Without exception, the movie picks on easy, safe and hackneyed targets, most of them from the south, which is the route he takes as he drives from New York to Los Angeles.
Which leads me to the most serious criticism I have to level against the film, which is not that it's unoriginal, but that it's dishonest and misleading. The scene at the rodeo, for example, begins with some old dope going along with a few anti-Semitic remarks that Cohen himself makes first. The scene moves directly from the old dope to Borat's singing of the national anthem, with shots of the unamused crowd. My point isn't to defend the old dope, it's to criticize Cohen for the satirical argument implied in the editing of this scene. Introducing the rodeo the way he does, Cohen clearly implies two things: first, that the old dope is one of that crowd, and therefore they must all be racist, Jew-hating rednecks. Never mind that the president of a real country (Iran) has called publicly for Israel to be wiped off the map. The greatest threat to Jews today came from the rodeo-loving, redneck south? Give me a break.
John Podhoretz, whose review I mentioned at the start of this post, compares the wrestling scene in Borat favorably with the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' classic, A Night at the Opera:
The genius of Borat is that it works on you in all sorts of different ways. In one sense, it's a raunchy comedy in the tradition of Animal House whose highlight is a crazed and enraged wrestling match between Borat and his obese producer. They wrestle in a hotel room, then in the hallway, then in the elevator, then through the lobby and into a ballroom where an actual, real-world convention is having its annual dinner. The wrestling is wild, violent, cartoonish--and both men are naked. The sequence is a classic piece of slapstick--as indelible in its way as the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera 70 years ago.
If I may be permitted to quibble, they don't wrestle in the elevator. They get on the elevator and then stand there, naked and awkward among the other passengers, until they get to the ground floor. That moment of restraint is perhaps the funniest part of this scene. But forget that. What I want to get to is the unfortunate comparison of this scene with the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. As it happens, quite by accident, I had watched A Night at the Opera with my family just a few hours before going to the theater to see Borat. That might have something to do with my lukewarm estimate of the new movie. The stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers movie can be compared to the wrestling scene only by someone who's momentarily lost his mind. The stateroom scene starts out funny and builds steadily, joke after joke, not letting you catch your breath before making you laugh again, until Margaret Dumont opens the door of Groucho's room and what seem like a couple dozen people spill out like a tidal wave of clowns. The naked wrestling scene in Borat starts out not funny but gross (with Borat's producer getting caught masturbating while looking at a picture of Borat's ideal woman, Pamela Anderson), and goes downhill from there. I reckon I've watched Night at the Opera - and thus the stateroom scene - twenty or thirty times. Even so, I laughed myself silly when I saw it again last night. I can't imagine finding the wrestling scene in Borat funny twice.
The funny thing is the way people who are normally pretty sober lost their minds about this movie. I am tempted to try to list all the films I can think of that were funnier than Borat, but it would be a long list. I'll mention only one movie that is both recent and, in a way, in the same vein as Borat. Team America: World Police was funnier, grosser, and more creative than Borat, and more daring in its satire. Borat picks on evangelicals, rednecks, and luckless folks in a small eastern village who have no means of recourse, and it doesn't attack so much as ambush them. Team America involves a full-front assault on Hollywood, Broadway and the cultural elites in Europe.
I was excited about Borat because of the skits I saw excerpted on YouTube. Borat could have been one of the four or five funniest characters in the history of Saturday Night Live. But this is not the first skit character in history whose transition to the big screen produces a movie that is less than the sum of its parts.