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Film Review: Borat

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006; Directed by Larry Charles)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s painfully, daringly funny cinematic opus is a comedic war of attrition. As naifishly crude and prejudiced as he is as Eastern European reporter Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen declared himself as either a master satirist, a crude shock artist, or, most likely, both with this audacious film. Whatever you decide to call him, Cohen finds countless ways to make you laugh in the course of Borat’s rambling trek across the United States. There are epic gross-outs (an extended naked dust-up between Borat and his hirsute producer comes immediately to mind), sharp social commentaries, over-the-top ethnic exaggerations (sometimes both of those at the same time), and flights of spectacular absurdism (the bear in the ice cream truck).

More than anything, his Borat is a brilliant device to draw the sheer madness of American society out into the open, and those scenes (particularly at a rodeo and a revival prayer meeting) are some of the most remarkable in the film. Much controversy was kicked up in the wake of the film’s release concerning Cohen’s improvisational, confrontational style of comédie-verité, not the least of which came from the victims of his prankish schemes. Some boorish University of South Carolina frat boys that he hitches a ride with come across particularly badly, and they sued for defamation. Their suit, along with pretty much every other piece of civil litigation to stem from Cohen’s American rampage, was dismissed.

This is not to absolve Cohen of all blame for his sometimes cruel and belligerent antics and hoaxes. There is some issue to be taken with the sort of deceptions for the purpose of ridicule that the film relies on, as well as some substance to the complaint that the participants caught unawares and made the figures of fun are merely trying to politely humour and respect Borat’s outlandish views and cultural practices. But the uptight objections to Cohen’s comedic method and (side-splitting) results constitute a manifestation of precisely the culture of polite correctness and plastered-over prejudice that is this film’s main satiric target in the first place.

In openly presenting the prejudices, offensive stereotypes, and scatological concerns that are so often carefully glossed over by polite society, Cohen exposes them to the oxygen of comedy. The satiric thrust of Borat, and what makes it more than a collection of outrageous stunts, is that simply papering over these noxious discriminatory constructions that have fed into so much social exclusion and conflict does not eliminate them. Disavowing them does not mean that they cease to exist. Cohen’s approach is more agit-prop in nature: confront the terms of discrimination directly and openly, and show them to be ridiculous and wrong.

The most memorable (and contentious) example of this sharp vector of choice in Borat is the ludicrously anti-Semitic parade that Borat attends in his native Kazakhstan. By the time a parading figure with a giant hooked-nose, horned papier-mâché head squats to lay a “Jew egg”, the monstrous protocols of anti-Semitic thought are exposed as not merely dangerous but also as fundamentally silly. Cohen, Jewish himself, channels his personal sensitivity about anti-Semitic imagery into a scalding critique of its outlandish dictums. What anti-Semitism says about Jews is entirely untrue, but that does not make it any less pernicious; Cohen understands that, and skewers its messages by inflating them to absurdity.

Overall, though, Borat succeeds as a true laugh riot, whatever other ends its intellectual critiques of prejudice may come to. Cohen’s dress-up act dovetailed into unfashionable excess with subsequent features Bruno and The Dictator, but Borat endures as a brazen, sometimes shocking set of comedic tangents with a sharp satirical edge.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. September 20, 2014 at 6:03 pm

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