There are perhaps a few people who might not enjoy “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Humorless folk, I suppose, those who take everything literally, and/or are unable to detect satire. And Bobby Rowe, the rodeo general manager whose desire to lynch all gays is revealed as he speaks to Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian who plays the titular Kazakhistani. Everyone else is likely to react in the same way as the five audiences with which I’ve seen the movie, responding to the events unfolding on screen with a mixture of sounds usually associated with farm animals and Halloween creatures: there were many squeals, some honking, occasional howling, and a great deal of cackling. Every few minutes, a different person sounded as if they were in urgent need of oxygen. Turning to look down the rows, I noticed that many viewers sat in a half-crouch, prepared to shield their eyes but refusing to look away. Having your seat kicked is highly irritating, but at these moments, it was an acceptable expression of a lack of preparedness for the experience of seeing such a picture. Like the Christian folk Borat encounters towards the film’s conclusion, many people sitting through this movie had no choice but to flail about, with little control over their lower extremities and the noises they made.
If you object to my comparing what is, at times, a very disgusting comedy to “genuine” religious rapture, then you are grossly underestimating the comedic lightning bolt that is “Borat.” I have seen many a movie that was hilarious in its own way, movies that elicited frequent guffaws from an enthusiastic audience, but I have never heard a group of people laugh so hard, so loud, and so long, as during “Borat.” You might need a handful of lozenges after watching this movie. Why all the hysteria? How is it that Sacha Baron Cohen has made comedic history? Why is a movie with a lengthy, graphic nude wrestling sequence perhaps the most important Hollywood production in recent memory? Let us return to the matter of Bobby Rowe.
When we are introduced to this hateful old redneck, he is in the middle of explaining to our faithful protagonist why his mustache and dark hair makes him look like a terrorist. If he were to shave, of course, he might look more like an I-talian. You see, when Bobby Rowe sees someone who looks like Borat, he thinks of what type of bomb he might have strapped to his chest. If Borat were less “conspicuous,” as Rowe says, he might be accepted in America. It is ironic, and disturbing, of course, that people like Rowe are in any position to dictate “acceptable behavior” to an outsider. Yet this is the barely hidden core of our country, one which Baron Cohen reveals much more easily than we might have expected, or wanted. As much as we may speak of a free country, we are as backward as the fictionalized Kazakhstan from which Borat hails. More than the nude wrestling, the wedding sack, and the scene-stealing chicken, the frigid heart of the film is its unrelenting depiction of America’s knee-jerk reliance on bigotry. Sure, Baron Cohen and his cohorts selected the best clips from the endless footage they recorded, but the fact that they managed to cull such responses at all is off-putting at the least. One expects that only a high level of comfort would allow these folks to let out their inner hatred, but the quickness of their replies suggests that, in the culture that produced them, there is nothing wrong with advocating genocide, as a large rodeo crowd cheers for the slaughter of “every man, woman and child” in Iraq.
Rowe’s calmly delivered tirade is one of the moments during “Borat” when the audience does not cackle, howl, or even squeal. Slightly less appalling but similarly surprising is the moment when Borat is told, without hesitation, that a 9 MM or a .45 would be the best defense against Jews. We also discover that purchasing a Corvette is the best way to attract women who are shaved “below.” These revelations are sprinkled amidst exhibitions of highly-skilled physical comedy, and scenes that prove just how far Baron Cohen and his coconspirators are willing to go to accomplish their goal. The film, haphazard though it may seem on its surface, is cleverest when it appears to be dumb. Smile when you see that a Southern dinner party is taking place on “Secession Drive.” Watch how the camera focuses on nodding children when a preacher calls America “a Christian nation.” And don’t ignore the fact that the rodeo crowd applauds when Borat professes support for America’s “War of Terror.” A novice at the English language like Borat might make such a prepositional mistake, but a Cambridge graduate like Baron Cohen knows exactly what he is doing in changing just one small letter. Our protagonist’s “mistake” and the resulting cheers are a perfect example of the type of unthinking obsequiousness practiced by far too many of our fellow citizens.
Lest you think that this blissful lack of scrutiny can only afflict others, you would be guilty of it yourself if you viewed this film as a trifle, as something akin to “Jackass” or its sequel. It is indeed 84 minutes of consistent hilarity, but to categorize “Borat” only as a cause for laughter would be sorely missing the point. Its delightful opening weekend receipts suggest that many of us know well enough to see the film, but if “Borat” has any flaws, it is that you are bound to miss some of the smaller moments while you and the other viewers flail about in your chairs. The solution to this, of course, is repeat viewings. The first time you see the picture, you might laugh throughout the scene where Borat and his producer Azamat realize they are in “a nest of Jews” and decide to flee, but you might well miss the implication that Borat’s most prevalent prejudice, anti-Semitism, has just been proven utterly foolish, as two grown men have spent half a night cowering from a sweet elderly couple. You might cackle when a handful of young black men teach Borat a new way to dress and talk, but you might not notice that his goofy fascination with their ways is just as bigoted as his fear of being poisoned by Jews. Quick-witted though you may be, you will invariably miss something the first time you see “Borat,” and it only makes sense to return for more.
Were you looking for a plot summary? Well, Borat is sent to America with Azamat to learn from our culture so that he may help solve the ills of his country (that is, “economic, social, and Jew”). He becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson while watching an episode of “Baywatch” at his New York hotel, and decides to travel to California (in an ice-cream truck) in order to make her his wife. The film is a buddy comedy, a gross-out movie, a road trip picture, a mockumentary, and many other things. But perhaps more than anything else it is a lens through which we can look at our society and understand that we are a nation full of Bobby Rowes. “Borat” probably won’t do much to eradicate the stream of hatred coursing just beneath America’s artificial surface, but in helping reveal just how rotten we are, its importance should not be understated.
Baron Cohen plays another grammatical trick on us with the film’s unwieldy subtitle, “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” We can chuckle at the statement’s garbled English, but we should also be aware of the fact that the film contains “Cultural Learnings of America.” Indeed, it is not Borat’s fictional backwater town, but our all-too-real country that is being educated by this mustachioed man with the unbridled enthusiasm and unadulterated prejudice.