With HBO’s Da Ali G Show, Sacha Baron Cohen created a theater of comedic embarrassment and awkwardness with a culture-critiquing twist, each of his three characters crafted from, and indulging in, stereotypes as a means to reflect national attitudes and prejudices. The titular Ali G, a gangsta-rap wannabe, tested the limits of interview subjects’ patience and tolerance through wanton stupidity, his offensive (and often nonsensical) questions to public figures and hot-button issue experts designed to see how far chauvinistic and all-around irresponsible behavior would be condoned—the answer, more often than not, being “surprisingly far.” Whereas Ali G’s shtick was heavily focused on skewering macho male idiocy, Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion expert, had the more specific target of homophobia, which he sought to find and reveal in others via aggressive flamboyance and graphic sexual discussions, a modus operandi that also defines Cohen’s greatest invention: Borat Sagdiyev. The Kazakhstan reporter with the gray suit, bushy moustache, broken English, and nonchalantly misogynistic, racist, and anti-Semitic opinions, Borat was, and remains, the ideal vehicle for both Cohen’s discomforting gags as well as his socio-political agenda, the latter found in his odious comments and, especially, the repulsive reactions they elicit from respondents.
A man who, in discussing his homeland’s social hierarchy, once told a woman “In Kazakhstan we say, ‘God, man, horse, dog, then woman, then rat,’” and in season two’s finest bit asked a karate instructor to teach him the best method of defense against the dreaded “Jew Claw,” Borat—as an oblivious foreigner struggling to understand America, and whose appearance is meant to seem more Arab than East Asian (a fact unimportant to the insulted president of Kazakhstan)—stands as both a satire of repugnant mindsets as well as an instrument for exposing similarly ugly outlooks in Americans. With Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Cohen and director Larry Charles don’t stray from the character’s original template, following their doofus journalist from his farcically caricatured hometown (where his sister is the “fourth best prostitute,” the mechanic is also the abortionist, and cows reside in living rooms) to the U.S. and A., where he plans to make a documentary for local Kazakhstani television. What that entails is a series of interviews with unsuspecting real-world victims who believe they’re generously aiding in Borat’s process of Americanization, all loosely tied together with staged scenes involving Borat and his grumpy, overweight producer/sidekick Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) traveling cross-country from New York to California in an ice cream truck.
After an epiphany in his Manhattan hotel room, Borat’s underlying motive for his interstate trip becomes finding and marrying Pamela Anderson in Los Angeles, with his conversations with regular folk punctuated by questions about his blond obsession and his nights spent poring over his prized Baywatch scrapbook. What truly fuels Borat, however, isn’t the destination so much as the journey, which [warning: spoilers ahead] finds the reporter greeting NYC subway riders with facial kisses (with threatening results), singing the (fake) Kazakhstan national anthem at a Virginia rodeo after having the event’s manager confess his desire to hang homosexuals, and interrupting a society dinner at which he’s a guest by inviting a prostitute over and bringing his feces to the table in a plastic baggie. In these and other instances, Cohen’s humor proves amusingly subversive, his outrageous confrontational tactics—at times subtle, at others insistent—aimed at challenging common thresholds of decorum and forbearance in a manner similar to that of legendary provocateur Andy Kaufman. Yet whereas Kaufman peddled antagonism, Cohen is sneakier and slyer, his devious goal of utilizing xenophobia to extract abhorrent statements from others giving his material an understated depth even when some of his targets (like those found below the Mason-Dixon line) seem akin to fish in a barrel.
What ultimately makes Borat a riot, though, isn’t its socio-analytical acuteness, but rather Cohen’s gift for establishing circumstances at once squirm-inducing uncomfortable, slapstick-stupid, and insanely inappropriate. Whether or not Borat’s pratfalling in a Civil War antique store, which leads to hundreds of dollars of damage, is an act of political protest against Confederate memorabilia isn’t really important, since the scene’s hilarity stems from the British comedian’s exaggerated, loose-limbed physical performance, as well as the business owner’s ensuing indignation. Extremism is Cohen’s guiding principle, so that the film’s myriad scatological, sexual, and non sequitur-laden jokes are its genuine backbone. Borat (semi)unwittingly stumbles into gay sex scenarios, runs around a hotel brandishing a fist-shaped rubber dildo, sunbathes in a ludicrously skimpy bathing suit, and rides a country bar’s electric bucking bronco with a heavyset whore—at nearly every interval, the star employs his gangly, hairy frame and look of innocent, dim-witted confusion to side-splitting effect. Such gags are routinely bolstered by director Charles’s jarring and absurd visual compositions, with his mockumentary aesthetic (full of grainy cinematography and black box-encased English subtitles superimposed over foreign text), as well as his use of “exotic” music (including a piece borrowed from Emir Kusturica’s Underground), perfectly complementing Cohen’s phony Kazakhstan dialogue and uncoordinated comportment.
If all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because it is: Cohen and Charles don’t attempt to alter, refine, or expand their central character from his HBO/British TV origins. Borat is, at heart, simply a sequence of skits tied together with the flimsiest of storylines, and thus neither significantly funnier nor more clever than his prior small-screen efforts. This lack of originality is the film’s most nagging shortcoming, as there’s a sense that the filmmakers—in refusing to depart from their source material in any noteworthy way—have taken the safer route, if such a thing applies to an endeavor in which former Georgia senator Bob Barr is offered cheese and then, once it’s in his mouth, informed that it was made from the milk of Borat’s wife’s breast. Still, considering the debacle that was 2002’s Ali G Indahouse, which turned the West Staines poser into a mundane cartoon character, perhaps creative constancy was the wisest route. And anyway, it’s hard to quibble over degrees of innovation amid this abundance of inspired lunacy, the highlight of this highlight-packed film being a naked scuffle between Borat and Azamat that climaxes with some rugged 69-position grappling. As the intrepid Kazakh journalist might say: Happy time!