Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

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3 stars
(…moving from the sublime to the ridiculous…)

I’m giving this movie a mild recommendation because it is extremely funny, and I’m prepared to forgive just about anything if it is funny enough. However be warned that it is also very offensive. In fact, however offensive you think it might be based on what you have heard, it is probably a lot more offensive than that.

This is sort of a hybrid mocumentary, partway between a true mocumentary like This is Spinal Tap (where everything is staged using actors) and the “ambush documentaries” of Michael Moore (where real people are interviewed but deceived about the nature of the interview.)

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays Borat Sagdiyev, a reporter for the Kazakhstan state television network. Accompanied by his producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) he travels across the United States filming a documentary about American culture. Along the way he interacts with numerous real people who think they are dealing with a real Kazakhstani reporter filming a real documentary.

Kazakhstan, as described by Borat, is Lower Slobovia, everyone’s nightmare of a benighted, backward and generally nasty third-world country. Borat himself is ignorant, bigoted and offensive beyond belief.

Presumably the satirical point is to make fun of Western attitudes toward the third world and to point out the prejudice that lies below the surface of American society. Or maybe the real point is to let us laugh at very crude and sometimes racist humor, but the former explanation certainly sounds better. In any case, much has been made of some scenes in which Cohen induces real Americans to agree with some of Borat’s bigoted ravings.

In an extended sequence Borat parties with 3 college students who are identified as members of the Chi Psi fraternity. Their behavior will not surprise anyone who has ever lived on a campus that has a Chi Psi chapter.

It is a bit more startling when Borat asks a gun dealer “What kind of gun should I use to defend against Jew?” Apparently without missing a beat the dealer recommends a 45 or a 9mm. We have already seen that the simple-minded Borat sincerely believes that Jews are supernatural beings with horns, but what’s this guy’s excuse? At least he refuses to actually sell Borat a gun.

Even more unnerving is the rodeo announcer who not only agrees with everything Borat says, but seems to be trying to outdo him in bigotry.

It should be noted however that the vast majority of the Americans who encounter Borat actually do their country proud. They make a determined effort to be polite to the crazy foreigner and only explode when subjected to the most excessive provocation.

Even the New York City subway riders who Borat greets with a friendly kiss, while not exactly models of civility, at least display more restraint than I would have predicted.