I’m just going to go out on a limb and say it: “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is the most overrated comedy, perhaps movie of the year. There I said it. Pummel me with tomatoes and various other fruits and vegetables if you must (I prefer fresh, if you please), but hear me out.
“Borat” is funny. You will laugh. It is deserving of all its box office success, in both the states and in star Sacha Baron Cohen native country, England. I even say, good on ya for the 92% positive reviews at rottentomatoes.com, which gathers reviews from around the country.
It is the content of these reviews, which often give “Borat” their highest rating that give me pause. I’m not denying the film is funny, even hilarious. Perhaps it is a moot point to debate how funny or brilliant the film is, but there is something about how highly praised it is that bothers me.
Cohen is being heralded as a brilliant satirist. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote he “is a balls-out comic revolutionary, right up there with Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Dr. Strangelove, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Cartman at exposing the ignorant, racist, misogynist, gay-bashing, Jew-hating, gun-loving, warmongering heart of America.”
And he’s not the only one to pile the praise and comparative name-dropping high. Ty Burr of The Boston Globe wrote that, “it is ‘Jackass’ with a brain and Mark Twain with full frontal male nudity.”
In a Minneapolis Star Tribune review entitled, “‘Borat’ just might be the funniest movie ever,” Colin Covert claimed the film is “conceptually brilliant and fearlessly executed, it rewrites the rules of screen comedy, presenting something never before seen on film: a gene-splice of Andy Kaufman’s high-wire character humor and caught-on-the-street pranks from ‘Punk’d.’”
“Borat” is some, but not all of these things. The film is a faux-documentary about a Kazakh journalist, who comes to the states to make a film about the country in hopes of benefiting his country.
Cohen did really go across America as Borat, interviewing people, who thought his character was the real deal. The film is a blend of the real with the staged. How much is genuine and how much is fake is hard to say.
The film is compiled from hours of footage and what appears in the film was specifically chosen. Only the UK magazine Empire really stresses that point stating, “we recognise that Cohen was hardly going to include footage of those people who lambasted Borat for his views, or rumbled the ruse.”
The Borat character is racist, sexist, homophobic and an all around bigot. These traits are supposed to reveal and show how ridiculous our own prejudices can be. The real encounters are supposed to reveal the true America or as Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly states it “the people Borat talks to become the symbolic heart of America — a place where intolerance is worn, increasingly, with pride.”
Even Cohen, in a Rolling Stone interview, the only one done not as Borat, admits that was his intention stating that Borat is tool that “let’s people lower their guards and expose their own prejudices.”
The film does do this and when it does it well, such as the sequence at a rodeo, it does indeed cut deep. The problem with Gleiberman’s statement, and others like it, is that it is over selling the point. The film through its comedy does raise important issue and reveals the worst of some Americans, but the key word is some. In many reviews and articles there’s almost a rolling over and accepting that all Americans are bigots. Suddenly, the few represent the all.
Much has been written that Cohen and director Larry Charles have invented a new film genre, but its execution is hardly new or ingenious. The mockumentary format that the film utilizes has been around since Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” and was perfected by Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap.”
Calling it a more intelligent version of “Jackass” and “Punk’d” or even “The Tom Green Show” is accurate, but hardly raises the film to brilliance. The points the film brings up are important, but “Borat” is hardly the first film or TV show to raise them.
Often there isn’t anything profound or surprising about the supposed revelations about Americans. Perhaps that is part of the point, or maybe it is because it is merely a reiteration of points made elsewhere.
It is shocking that people were duped into saying bigoted things on camera, but “The Daily Show” has been getting real people to say dumb things for years. “South Park” has been showing America’s hypocrisy for just as long. Even Will Ferrell’s summer comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (which Cohen co-starred in) did a good job satirizing skewed American values.
Even so, Cohen as a performer can’t be faulted. The word brilliant can be applied to him, even if his film isn’t necessarily so. He is completely immersed into the character of Borat in a way that does indeed recall Andy Kaufman, Peter Sellers and other comedy greats. His ability to improvise in real situations is amazing.
The film's more satirical moments are paired with humor of the fish-out-of-water variety, which while funny, is hardly fresh. The film features a lot of scatological humor, culminating in Borat and his producer getting into a nude wrestling match that is cringe worthy. You’ll laugh, but you won’t feel good about yourself for doing so.
“Borat” will cause thought provoking conversation for some, while others will simply revel in its low-brow humor. Some will claim that’s part of why it is so inspired. But maybe at the end of the day, “Borat” is simply a very funny movie. If it is a classic, can we at least wait a few years before branding it so?