Available this week on video and DVD, Borat was something of a box office miracle last year. It even asked in its own ads whether it was the funniest movie ever made. Presumably the question is rhetorical; unhappily, the answer is, "Not even close."¯
The full title, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, tells a lot about what follows, including the plot and the satiric tone. The movie is the brainchild of British TV comic Sacha Baron Cohen, who has screenwriter and producer credits and is the focus of every scene, including those in which he doesn't appear. It purports to follow the journey of Kazakhstan's leading TV personality, Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen), and his producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), from his native village to these shores.
As long as the action remains scripted, it's pretty funny. Borat not so reluctantly departs the town in his horse-drawn car, leaving behind his threatening wife, his envious, anti-Semitic neighbors, and his sister, "the #4 prostitute in all of country."¯ Arriving in the Big Apple, he mistakes the hotel elevator for his room, offends a variety of people on the street and in his interviews, and"”having seen her on a late night "Baywatch"¯ rerun--falls violently in love with Pamela Anderson. He buys a used soft-serve ice-cream wagon and sets off on a cross country tour to Malibu, having convinced the skeptical Azamat that they will discover "the real America."¯
At every stop"”in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Mississippi, Texas, etc."”they meet (apparently) real folk who aren't in on the gag. Borat manages to offend, dupe, or amuse most of them. The structure becomes that of the "road flick,"¯ a loose, episodic form with little development of the character, other than by his trying to overcome various obstacles: the loss of his passport, the defection of Azamat, his own lack of gas money. Increasingly, each of these episodes"”or skits, more precisely-- ends with Borat chasing someone, the police or security people chasing Borat, or Borat getting thrown out of whatever place he has found himself. The Big Climax, with Plastic Pam doing a cameo as herself, is just more of same.
Now, I hasten to say that I bow to nobody in my affection for satire, and I am not easily offended. So the "pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language"¯ which deservedly earns the movie its "R"¯ rating don't bother me. Nor do the cheap production values, as presumably these are meant to poke fun at the made-on-a-shoestring documentary being parodied. No, what I don't like is the repetitiousness, which bleeds the initially promising conceit dry; the slipshod editing, which lets way too many scenes run too long, slowing the comic momentum; and the too-frequent substitution of "shock"¯ values for wit. (Example: a nude wrestling scene between Borat and Azamat, in which the only clever bit is the "censored"¯ part.) I'm also put off by the film's making fun of people who, for the most part, don't deserve it.
I know all this puts me in the vast minority: so be it. This could have been a genuinely funny film, and Cohen is clearly a brilliant, if erratic, comedian. But if suffers from the problems encountered by many such first-time, one-man-gang efforts (including those of, say, Michael Moore). Its self-indulgence gets in the way of its own good intentions, so the initially funny premise"”naĆÆve foreign reporter comes to America and is dumbfounded by the exotic species therein"”devolves into predictability. Ultimately, it commits what is, for comedy, the kiss of death: it says to the audience, "Look at me! Aren't I funny?"¯ OK, sometimes, but not enough.