Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 15, 2007)
Although Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character never really took off in America, his Borat personality gave the actor his breakthrough effort. 2002’s big screen adventure Ali G Indahouse didn’t even hit US theaters; it went straight to video here. However, 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan became a major hit. It yanked in $128 million and turned into a real pop phenomenon.
Not burdened by much of a story, Borat takes us to a fictionalized version of Kazakhstan to meet Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen), a local TV reporter. Along with producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), he gets the assignment to go to the USA and get to know more about the country to help the struggling Kazakhs learn how to succeed.
As Borat proceeds, he discovers a vision that inspires him: Pamela Anderson on Baywatch. Pre-trip threats from his wife initially dissuade him from this quest, but when his spouse dies, he aspires to find and woo Pamela. In pursuit of this goal, Borat and Azamat drive from New York to California as they meet many Americans along the way.
Before I discuss my thoughts about Borat, I want to relate my initial expectations for the flick. I liked the bits of Cohen’s shtick I’d previously seen, and I thought the trailers for Borat looked very funny. Buoyed by the movie’s rave reviews, I thought the flick would be a real winner.
Why do I feel it necessary to mention these preconceived notions? Because I don’t want my dislike of Borat to be chalked up to a predisposition against it. I expected to enjoy the movie and wanted to dig it.
That didn’t happen, especially during my second viewing of it on DVD. Theatrically, I thought the flick was hit or miss. It presented a smattering of laugh out loud funny bits but also suffered from a surfeit of disgusting gags without much more to them than shock value. While not a total loss, the end result seemed considerably less amusing than anticipated.
Perhaps I went into Borat with excessively high expectations and I’d enjoy it more on DVD. Unfortunately, the opposite proved true. The gags worked even less well with repetition, and the movie’s flaws became more apparent.
What flaws do I mean? The often artificial nature of the project creates issues. Borat mixes staged sequences with those shot on the fly in various settings. While the flick would like us to believe everything occurs “for real”, that clearly isn’t the case. It’s obvious that many segments are faked for the movie, a fact that dilutes their impact.
And the impact of the rest of it as well. Because we question the veracity of so many segments, we remain constantly doubtful of what we see. I don’t mind that the movie creates wholly fictitious circumstances, but the intermingling of elements causes problems. It makes us hyperscrutinize what we see in that “Is it real or is it Memorex?” manner; we think much more about the veracity of what we watch than we should. The movie needs to go one way or the other, as the artificial nature blunts its impact.
Even if I forget that distraction, Borat loses points simply because of its emphasis on shock value. This is comedy mostly in the Tom Green/Jackass vein. It lacks much cleverness and usually just aims for the crude side of things.
At least Jackass doesn’t aspire to be more than basic idiocy. Borat, on the other hand, pretends it’s a look at the dark, bigoted underbelly of society. However, it’s really just an excuse for mean-spirited crudeness. It dresses up its grossness in the alleged pursuit of dark satire. Some seem to believe that Borat reveals hidden truths about Americans. Is anyone out there surprised to find out that rednecks hate gays and that frat boys are misogynists and racists? I sure wasn’t, and those “revelations” are about as revealing as the film ever gets.
In addition, Borat mistakes gross-out stunts and gags for actual humor. There’s real humor to be mined from the character, and when Borat spins conventions on their ear, the flick works. It’s when we’re stuck with simple crassness and nastiness that the movie falters, and that happens an awful lot of the time. The absolutely disgusting nude wrestling scene between Borat and Azamat isn’t funny at all; it simply attempts to produce uncomfortable laughs with the over the top unpleasantness of the visuals. And trust me: Ken Davitian naked is arguably the ugliest sight I’ve ever seen.
Borat also runs into problems due to its length. At 84 minutes, this is a short flick, but the gags work best in small doses. When taken in dribs and drabs, the premise works. Viewed as one long reel, however, the shtick wears thin.
In the end, Borat occasionally amuses but more often than not just seems forced and lame. The one-note character gets predictable quickly, and the flick doesn’t hold up well for second screening. Without basic surprise behind it, the film loses any humor value. Smug, self-satisfied and condescending, Borat pats itself on the back for its cleverness but ultimately fails.