By Ed Gonzalez
The three best television sitcoms of the new millennium—Arrested Development, The Office, and Curb Your Enthusiasm—all thrill in a spontaneous form of human comedy. Sans canned laughter, shot on real locations, and open to improvisation, these shows actively revolt against TV norms in order to move a little closer to real life. Though wickedly stylized, Arrested Development still suggests a form of voyeuristic nonfiction—like peering into a great ant farm, only the ants are a family of people and the leaves they lug around are the baggage of their complex and very fragile human affairs. Even on The Office, where a documentary crew's camera becomes an outlet for Dunder Mifflin's employees to let off steam, no one ever seems to be performing out of character. Though the focus of these shows is often the mundane, their resonance is decidedly not: all three reveal great truths about the world that go beyond the politics of family circles, 9-to-5 drudgery, and Hollywood privilege.
Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show is a kindred spirit of these great comedies, except the program's experimental daring is slightly more combustible—a mix of fact and improvisational fiction that's totally unpredictable. Cohen's unique bent is to expose the realities of America's political system, our country's way of life, and the pretensions of the fashion world through twisted practical jokes aimed at real people—ones that end without the benefit of Cohen yelling out, "Smile! You're on Candid Camera!" His three famous characters—cockney b-boy Ali G, Kazakhstanian reporter Borat Sagdiyev, and Austrian fashionista Bruno—are all fakes, a fact that's obvious to no one except for Cohen's happy audience. Now Borat, Cohen's most ingenious creation, rides into theaters on a wave of publicity to rival the shitstorm that blew Snakes on a Plane into town a few short months ago, but why does Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan feel so lazy?
For one thing, it fails to substantiate its unwieldy title. Cohen bravely stretches one of his Borat sketches to feature-length, and though he stays in character for all 82-minutes, the film's through-line is an obvious contrivance. (Spoilers herein.) Arriving in New York City under the pretense that he will bring rich cultural know-how from America to Kazakhstan, Borat is distracted by an episode of Baywatch and its star Pamela Anderson. His obsession with the actress, who is set to appear at a book signing in Los Angeles, is the film's flimsy excuse to keep Borat moving, shooting ducks in a barrel throughout red-state America. The foreign world's fascination with Baywatch is a strange thing the film chooses not to clarify, nor does it have to, but it should have set up whatever thin grasp Borat may already have of our American pop cultural landscape, how that shapes his view of the U.S. and A., and how his experiences in our country may or may not contradict his Kazakhstanian value system. Cohen's performance is consistent but his character is not. This is because Borat's gumption in front of the camera has been thought-out better than his background.
Except for the "Running of the Jew", which brilliantly and hilariously satirizes the way racism is institutionally externalized, the film's Kazakhstan scenes only barely dramatize the country's way of life and traditions, asking us to take at face value that this is probably a place that merits change. Borat doesn't seem to learn a whole lot in America, yet he brings back to his country the kind of "learning" that only includes an iPod. This might have been funny if capitalism was ever on Borat's mind. What is on the film's mind are people's moral and social traditions, and in Atlanta, Borat approaches a group of African-American men and asks them to teach him how to dress and act like them, which is quickly followed by a strange scene in which Borat tries to secure a room in a fancy hotel while acting like one of the men. This scene fails because Borat's put-on comes out of nowhere (then dropped like it's hot), though it does connect very explicitly with two other scenes—Borat's delayed learning of the "not" joke and his producing partner Azamat Bagatov's (Ken Davitian) Laurel & Hardy routine in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre—that also suggest that Borat and Azamat can be integrated into American life, but only the two later scenes get at the practice-makes-perfect aspect of assimilation and the intimidation of America's vast pop-cultural database.
Borat is sexist and racist, yet there is never a sense while watching the film of how his affections for Anderson and, later, an overweight African-American prostitute he asks to join him at a society dinner clash with his perception of females and people of color. (Why does Borat so readily woo a black woman when his vision of the heinous Alan "Genuine Chocolate Face" Keyes suggests a deep, personal bias against blacks?) We learn—and this is very funny—that two of the reasons Borat is attracted to Anderson are, one, her virginhood (a presumption that's blown during an awkward, likely-scripted scene inside a Winnebago with a bunch of frat boys who show Borat Anderson's infamous sex tape with Tommy Lee) and, two, her asshole, which is ostensibly not unlike that of a seven-year-old. But does Borat, should he marry the actress, intend to regard her any differently than he did his recently deceased wife or currently does his sister, Kazakhstan's fourth-best prostitute? Borat is a hypocrite—like, yes, many racists and sexists—but Cohen seems almost oblivious to this, failing to access how Borat's character flaws challenge him, not just the people around him, as he moves across America.
After all that, you may think Borat is a total bust. It's not, but its unfulfilled promise disappoints, and like most films amassed from sketches, it's most instructive to weigh what works against what doesn't. We should probably be glad that Larry Charles and not Todd Phillips is behind the camera here, but while the film benefits from its loose structure and Charles's ambling eye, Borat's framing and linking devices don't enrich what's already been alluded to about Kazakhstan in Da Ali G. Show. (Even the horned-up Riefenstahl-meets-Metropolis iconography of the film's closing credits feels strangely one-note.) One thing the film succeeds at is revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly of American tolerance. "I'm not used to that but that's fine," says a driving instructor as Borat kisses him on the face. These hellos are a staple of Cohen's shtick, and the uncomfortable ease with which the actor-comedian's "victims" submit to Borat's intimate welcome suggests a genuine desire to respect foreign traditions. But Cohen understands that tolerance has its limits, and he exposes something very dark about American behavior when that tolerance is pushed. Borat is always flipping switches, illuminating how quickly hospitality can turn to contempt.
It is easy to distrust the scene where Borat goes to a rodeo, where he connects with the crowd because of their mutual interest in Bush's war on terror only to lose them when he sings the Kazakhstan national anthem to the beat of our own. It's questionable whether the crowd revolts against Borat because the lyrics of his song (something about Kazakhstan being the best country in the world) disrespect their nationalism or because they finally realized they were being punk'd. What is clear is that his audience probably should have been given pause as soon as Borat said that he hopes the President will drink the blood of every Iraqi woman, man, and child. Accepting a kiss on the face from Borat is polite, but applauding the wholesale slaughter of a country's people is something else entirely. Ditto the rodeo man who doesn't have to be prodded very hard to reveal that all gays should be lynched. Borat may be a lie, but the rodeo man's prejudice is legit, and there is no reason to believe that he wouldn't have said the same thing in the company of friends.
Borat is not unlike Curb Your Enthusiasm, inviting us to squirm at uncomfortable human interactions that are funny for reasons at once superficial and deeply thoughtful. The "punks" may be crass but they also remind us of the contempt many of us struggle to keep in check beneath cloaks of geniality. This is something Charles, who first honed his observational chops on the great Seinfeld, understands and visually boosts during the movie's best scene, during which his camera catches the name of the street near a house Borat is taken to by an etiquette coach for a society dinner: Secession Drive. This is the essence of Borat, which looks to capture what happens when humanity secedes from our personal unions. For Borat's hosts, the breaking point is not the feces he brings down to the dinner table from the upstairs bathroom but the black woman he invites to their house. Maybe these people finally figured out they were being punk'd and that is why they push Borat out the door, or maybe a black prostitute is more intolerable to them than a bag of shit. Either way, Borat's cultural learning is revealing, even if it doesn't adequately convey how it benefits glorious nation of Kazakhstan.
Ed Gonzalez is co-founder of Slant Magazine and contributing film editor for PLANETº Magazine. His work has also appeared in City Pages, The Village Voice, and Gay City News.