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Borat (5/10)

by Tony Medley

I had three clues I wasn’t going to like this. First, the star, Sasha Baron Cohen, has mounted a brilliant PR campaign, going around to all the shows, to Regis and Kelly and all the other morning shows, everywhere, totally in character. They all pander to him. The Tonight Show’s Matt Lauer treated him as if he were the second coming of Richard Pryor. Second, all the film critics I’ve heard discuss it praise it to the skies. Third, the trailer and Cohen’s promotional appearances show all the good jokes.

Even so, I went expecting to enjoy it. Alas, ‘twas not to be. This is another in the anti-intellectual Will Ferrell school of comedy (Cohen was a supporting actor in Farrell’s “Talladega Nights”), emphasizing jokes that seem to concentrate on male nudity, stupid ingenuity, gay sex, and excrement.

Borat (Cohen) leaves his Kazakh village to film a documentary about the United States. He takes with him his gaggingly obese producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian). Directed by Larry Charles, who worked on “Seinfeld” and Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with a screenplay by Cohen, Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer, from a story by Cohen, Baynham, Hines & Todd Phillips, they allegedly traveled around the country filming the insultingly ingenuous Borat’s encounters with what the audience is intended to believe are unsuspecting ordinary Americans and capturing their reactions. While they may have used ordinary Americans as the bulk of the cast, it is clear that they had to set up their cameras and lights, so the reactions are hardly “Candid Camera,” people who didn’t know they were being filmed. With the camera and lights and setup, who could possibly be “unsuspecting?”

The film is far too scatological to appeal to my sense of humor. I don’t like bathroom gags, and the sight of two hairy, naked men wrestling and running through a crowded hotel is not something I find amusing or appealing to watch.

There are some humorous moments, like when Borat is at a dinner party and he asks the man at the head of the table if the lady next to him is his wife. “That is my wife,” he replies, pointing to the lady at the end of the table.” Borat replies, “In my country, they would go crazy for these two,” indicating the ladies on either side of him. Then, indicating the man’s wife, “but not so much for her.” If you’ve seen the trailer or any of Cohen’s promotional appearances on TV, you’ve seen and heard this and the others. They were humorous the first time, but by the second time they have lost their surprise, and, thus, their humor.

However, at the end of the party, the man at the head of the table says he has to leave. He storms out in disgust, but the woman he identified as his wife does not accompany him. If it was his wife at the other end of the table, why didn't she leave with him?

The film is brutally defamatory to Kazakhstan and its 15 million inhabitants. In fact, it wasn’t even shot in Kazakhstan; rather it was shot in Rumania and the language used by the villagers is Rumanian. When Borat speaks in a foreign language, often it is Hebrew. I can see no reason to poke fun at a real country, one that has a lot of poverty and is struggling to make it as a democracy. Intelligent, considerate people who make satires like this invent fictional countries, and have done so since films have been made. “The Mouse That Roared” (1959) invented the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, so as not to offend any real people or countries. There is no reason on earth why Cohen had to use a real country. I, for one, find it grossly offensive to have done so.

This film bases its humor on Cohen’s irreverent attitude, which he apparently perfected on the Da Ali G Show, for which he won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television). Despite Cohen's accolades, irreverence and bad taste do not equate to quality humor. Some people will like this; some might love it. I did neither.

November 6, 2006