Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan [DVD]
Director : Larry Charles
Screenplay : Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer (story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat Sagdiyev), Ken Davitian (Azamat Bagatov), Luenell Campbell (Luenell)
Vulgar, hilarious, and frighteningly revealing, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan mixes the mock documentary tradition with Sacha Baron Cohen’s unique brand of guerilla performance art. As a comedy, Borat is both side-splitting and cringe-inducing in the way it holds a mirror up to American society and reflects the kinds of banal ugliness we all like to believe doesn’t exist. The approach may be extreme, but the material literally demands it.
For those who aren’t familiar, Sacha Baron Cohen is a British comedian who has developed a series of characters on his popular HBO series Da Ali G Show, one of whom is a boorish reporter from Kazakhstan named Borat Sagdiyev. Borat, with his perpetually goofy grin peeking out from beneath an outdated bushy moustache, wide-open face, and complete inability to judge the social appropriateness of anything, is much like a child, which is why it is surprisingly easy to forgive him his maladjusted view of life, whether it be his casually raging anti-Semitism, misogyny, or general lewdness. Borat is fascinating because he mixes the worst human attributes imaginable with affability and, dare I say it, innocence.
The film’s central conceit is that Borat is filming a documentary for Kazakh television about the American experience. The film’s meta-brilliance lies in its willingness to exploit its faux documentary conceit (complete with grainy video and rough sound) for both humor and social insight by recording Borat’s interactions with real people, none of whom (apparently) are aware that the documentary is a joke. They think they’re being videoed for a Kazakh TV show and that Borat is the real deal, hence the cringe-inducing nature of the movie’s funniest moments.
The film opens with Borat in his “glorious” homeland, which is presented in highly fictionalized terms as a bass-akward, rural, in-bred country of perpetual poverty, ignorance, technological deprivation, and general social retardation. Borat is, thus, very much a product of his environment, a key element of the film’s social significance and its views on prejudice and intolerance. Along with his heavy-set and perpetually grumpy producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), Borat travels to “the U.S. and A” to learn more about America and what the Land of the Free has to offer. Borat gets sidetracked when he is introduced to the wonderment of Baywatch and decides that he will marry Pamela Anderson, which directs his tour of the country toward an ultimate destination in Hollywood.
The key to Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor is the way he uses his characters and their ignorance to draw out his interview subjects’ limitations and intolerance, and throughout Borat he finds numerous subjects who are all too willing to expose a kind of ugliness that I’m not sure they even recognize as such. The film’s most jaw-dropping moments include a Virginia rodeo in which Borat interviews an older cowboy who tells him that he should shave his mustache so he doesn’t look so much like “one of them Muslims” and ends by casually joking that homosexuality should be punished by death. Then there’s the RV full of frat boys from South Carolina who find a true brother in Borat and his views on the enslavement of women and alcohol consumption. And, lest you think that Borat limits itself to easy targets in red-state America, it also shows New Yorkers to be among the most hostile, crude, xenophobic people on the planet, as witnessed by several New Yorkers (including an otherwise respectable-looking businessman in a suit) threatening to do bodily harm to Borat when he attempts to greet them by kissing them on both cheeks.
What Borat reveals through its comedy is the underbelly of a culture that needs only minor prodding to bring forth a wealth of prejudice, disinformation, and sometimes flat out stupidity. The joke is simultaneously on Borat’s ignorance and that of his interview subjects. With his big grin, he hands them the rope and lets them hang themselves with it. What people are willing to say in front of a camera, even one they believe is only recording images for Kazakh TV (wherever that is, you imagine them thinking), is shocking to the point that all you can do is laugh in disbelief. Of course, not all interview subjects are the same, and some come off looking better than others. A group of veteran feminists can’t really be blamed for their humorlessness when Borat questions them about the scientific “fact” that women have smaller brains, and a high-society dinner group reacts all too understandably when Borat returns from the bathroom with a bag of his own feces and invites a prostitute to stop by for dessert.
There has been some criticism of the film, particularly from the Anti-Defamation League, arguing that the film’s gleefully perverse portrayal of Borat’s prejudices, especially his anti-Semitism, will actually encourage those with similar viewpoints, rather than chastise them. There is a valid point to be made here, and it is certainly not a new one (the use of Archie Bunker’s racism as corrective social humor in All in the Family was similarly criticized). However, it is hard to take such criticism seriously because Borat’s anti-Semitism is so exaggerated and ridiculous, especially early on when we see his hometown engaging in the yearly “Running of the Jew,” which involves children running from an enormous devil-headed puppet. Plus, Cohen addresses the ludicrous nature of Borat’s anti-Semitism directly in a sequence in which he is “trapped” in a bed and breakfast run by a kind, elderly Jewish couple. Borat is so irrationally convinced of Jewish evil that he literally believes the couple has shape-shifted into cockroaches, which sends him running for the door.
As Borat, Cohen uses every comical trick at his disposal, whether it be his uniquely broken English (he gets thunderous applause from the rodeo when he announces his country’s support of America’s “war of terror”) or his willingness to use his tall, hairy frame for all sorts of physical hilarity, including his clumsy first ride on an escalator, the “accidental” destruction of $425 worth of Confederate antiques, and a shockingly grotesque naked brawl with Azamat that is not made any less horrifying by its judicious use of carefully placed black bars. Cohen’s performance as Borat is some kind of improvisational masterpiece, the result of a comedian disappearing so deep into his character that you forget it’s any kind of performance at all (not surprisingly, Cohen has conducted every interview about the film in character). As a result, Cohen has not only made an intensely funny “moviefilm”--the kind that elicits both knowing chuckles and outright howls from those in tune with his gags--but also one that has brought genuine social significance back to American comedy.
|Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan DVD|
|Borat is available in separate widescreen and full-screen editions.|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Release Date||March 6, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Watching Borat on DVD, it actually looks better than I remembered it looking in theaters, perhaps because the transfer was likely taken directly from the digital video source. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the high-def video image looks as good as it can, considering that the film was never really intended to look “good.” The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is quite strong considering that much of it was recorded documentary style on the fly (although the cleanness of the track and the strength of the mix suggests quite a bit of postproduction work).|
|There aren’t a whole lot of supplements included on this DVD of Borat, but fans of the film will certainly appreciate what’s included. There are eight deleted scenes (or, as the menu pronounces, “footages” that have been removed by order of the Kazakh Ministry of Censorship) that run about half an hour total. It is fairly easy to see why these scenes were cut because, frankly, most of it isn’t very funny. Borat offending a woman at an animal shelter by asking her how to cook a puppy doesn’t really work, and the scene in a grocery store in which Borat walks down an aisle of cheese asking again and again and again and again what it is is just grating. Some of it is quite funny, though, especially Borat’s Kazakh version of Baywatch starring himself and titled SexyDrownWatch. There is also a 16-minute featurette titled “Global Propaganda Tour” that is comprised of footage of Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat promoting the film at various film festivals (including his infamous appearance at Cannes), on Saturday Night Live, and on Late Night With Conan O’Brien (where he tries to cut off O’Brien’s “pubus”) and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (where he tries to get into bed with Martha Stewart). The only other supplement on the disc is a promo for the film’s soundtrack. |
A special note needs to be made of the packaging and menus for this DVD, which cleverly maintain the illusion that it is a product of the movie’s fictional version of Kazakhstan. The outer slipcover is in English, but the actual amaray case features artwork that looks like it was made on a cheap color copier and all the text is in nonsensical “Kazakh.” All the menus follow the same cheap style as the film itself, and it even includes a warning against pirating the DVD that threatens you with the punishment of “crushing.” Very nice!
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 20th Century Fox