A good critic should react to a movie, not to the movie’s poster or trailer or Fox’s seeming desire to burn the freshness out of the movie months before it’s even released. It’s that last one that has given me some trouble with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The first time I saw the movie felt more like the second time, thanks to Fox’s incessant selling of the film, including showing way too many clips and jokes. The good news: the movie was very, very funny, even though I was feeling very jealous of the audiences who saw the movie totally blind and experienced every insane and hilarious gag fresh. I would say that the fact that I was able to laugh so much at the film despite it all feeling familiar indicates that this is a movie that’s going to play well on repeat viewings, the hardest thing on which to judge any comedy.
If you haven’t seen or heard much or anything about Borat, don’t worry about this review – I don’t want to add to the level of misery in the world by robbing anyone a chance to see this film virginally. I will tell you that the movie is not a Jackass-like compilation of clips where Borat – aka British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen pretending to be a clueless, sexist and anti-Semitic and yet completely likeable reporter from Kazakhstan – tricks hapless interview subjects into humiliating themselves. Borat has an actual story, and follows the title character from his small town to the USA, where he travels across country trying to make a documentary and find and marry Pamela Anderson. And believe it or not, that story has actual emotional resonance, and the character has a complete arc. Some of the funniest stuff in the movie doesn’t take place in those wacky interviews, but happens in scenes that, if not scripted, are considered in advance and improv’d between comedians.
But at the heart of the movie are those interviews, and odds are that the people who don’t like Borat are going to have a problem with those scenes. The charge is that Cohen is mocking his subjects, and by extension America, and that the comedy of the whole movie is based on a snotty nastiness. There is an element of that, but to see only that is a symptom of our modern need to brand. Everything has to fit into a category, and the true genius of Borat is that the comedy doesn’t slip easily into one simple dynamic – at any one minute we can be laughing at Borat, with Cohen, at the interview subjects, or sympathetically with the subjects. In many ways Borat isn’t comedy of nastiness, it’s comedy of discomfort, which is very, very British. I was often reminded of the original British The Office. The joke isn’t what jerks the interview subjects are, it’s how they try to deal with this boorish, ignorant interviewer. Except when it is about what jerks the subjects are; a couple of times Cohen’s gentle prodding brings out remarkably racist and sexist nastiness. Most of the time, though, it’s people just trying to be nice to the confused foreigner.
Obviously the film is about America – it’s right in the title – but I think that the reactions of many of Borat’s subjects are universal. People want to be polite, which is what makes it so funny to see them struggling in these impossible situations, getting closer and closer to breaking. Cohen, a master improviser, pushes their buttons perfectly; his art comes in heightening the situation, and doing so without fear. The guy walks right into situations that could get him hurt and then proceeds to exasperate them – there’s a commitment that’s impossible to deny and a recklessness that’s hard to understand.
Borat’s one weakness is that it gets repetitive; while the character travels across the country with his producer, most of the comedy rests on Borat’s shoulder’s alone, and his comedy starts to get familiar. I’ve always found that I like ensemble comedies better than comedies centering on one character – the ensemble melds different kinds of comedy while the single character comedy tends to stick to the same path. That’s the case here; while some people have called Borat the funniest movie in years I tend to think that Talladega Nights is just as funny, and that Anchorman is much, much funnier.