FILM REVIEW: BORAT
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Borat" is a rarity: a comedy whose middle name is danger, or as the Kazakhs say, kauwip-kater. A provocative, riotous and multidirectionally offensive comedy, it showcases a boorish, sexist, anti-Semitic oaf whose formidable mustache rests atop a ferocious smile, and who has a merry way of making much of America look more dangerous than Borat himself.
Sacha Baron Cohen created the character of Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh television commentator and satyr-like fool, for the British series "Da Ali G Show." But Borat is fully at home in the multiplex. A Blue State multiplex, at least. Red State multiplexes, maybe not so much.
Months of pre-opening hype have turned this radioactive little road picture into something it can't handle: the burden of being a big deal. Certainly it's the comedy of the year so far, funny in a dozen different, jostling ways. But saying it isn't for everybody is like saying bear-baitings aren't for everybody.
Still, anyone who can turn anti-Semitism inside out and make it work as satire deserves a movie. Mel Brooks had "The Producers"; Cohen, a kind of spiritual nephew to Brooks, has "Borat." And if fake Kazakh rituals such as "the Running of the Jew" aren't your thing, you can still marvel at the way Cohen's gray-suited, sideburn-free character dashes across a street like a human-sized chicken who has seen too many Jerry Lewis pictures.
The premise is simple: Borat and his rotund producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) journey to America in order to make a "moviefilm." (The full title of "Borat" is "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.") They arrive in New York armed with "a jar of gypsy tears," which, as Borat says, will "protect me from AIDS."
Borat assumes every woman on the street is a prostitute ("Very nice. How much?") and greets every man with kisses on both cheeks, no matter how hostile the recipient. Reveling in the joys of hotel life - he first assumes the hotel elevator is his room - Borat falls in love with Pamela Anderson while watching a "Baywatch" rerun. He must have her. And there's your plot.
Like the highest possible grade of "Punk'd," "Borat" subjects hapless real-life citizens to elaborate hoaxes perpetrated by a Brit playing an outlandish caricature of a Kazakh. As they head west in their used ice cream truck (don't ask) accompanied by a bear (don't ask), Borat and his producer encounter a variety of victims. They range from a humor coach from Washington, D.C., who becomes straight-man mincemeat in Borat's hands, to an etiquette expert from Birmingham, Ala.
At a real-life rodeo, Borat sings the words of the fake Kazakh national anthem to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner" while saluting the Bush administration's "war of terror." This is a killer of a scene, combining verbal humor of no little linguistic subtlety - "Borat" is full of broken-English gags transcending their low origin - coupled with a more provocative brand of political needling.
The director is Larry Charles, whose work on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" prepared him well for catching indignities and insults on the fly. A few weeks into filming Charles replaced director Todd Phillips, who made the comparatively slick "Old School." The trade appears to have been invaluable.
By expressing his own prejudices so guilelessly, Borat has a way of bringing out the latent prejudice in many of his on-camera interviewees. The American Heartland and the American South, generally mushed together in Britons' minds in the first place, come off as hotbeds of backwater prejudice against Jews, gays, Muslims and anyone outside the Christian Nation. Many of the jokes catch in the throat: When Borat is picked up by an RV full of South Carolina fraternity brothers, the boys' drunken spiels become appalling.
This scene, long and blobby, belongs to a different film; you sense the subjects playing to the camera. Like a lot of top-shelf comedies, "Borat" doesn't really know how to wrap itself up. ("Monty Python and the Holy Grail" heads the list of top-shelf comedies with non-endings.) A few sequences linger past their usefulness, and some of the sexual humor, especially jokes whose punch lines contain phrases such as "9-year-old girls," belongs to an inferior brand of crassness, not this generally superior variety.
But Cohen, one of four screenwriters on "Borat," extracts gems of both verbal and visual felicity throughout. None are more in-your-face - literally - than the nude wrestling match between Borat and Azamat in their Dallas hotel room. This is followed by a chase all around the hotel, ending in a meeting room full of astonished real-life mortgage brokers. The way it's filmed, it really does feel like a high-flying improvisation executed by two exceptionally brave actors.
With comedy, often it's the loose, slapdash project with little evident polish or money - "Holy Grail" in the 1970s; "This Is Spinal Tap" in the 1980s - that ends up highly esteemed, endlessly quoted, labeled a classic or, like "Holy Grail," turned into a musical. "Borat" belongs in that list, even though its punches are wilder.
Four years ago, Cohen brought his best-known character, the faux-rapper Ali G, to the screen in "Ali G Indahouse." Unreleased theatrically in the U.S. the film was a huge hit in Britain, but it was a dumbed-down hit, raunchy and obvious. "Borat," by contrast, may be raunchy and abrasive, but dumb it's not. It sticks to its guns and stays true to Cohen's particular talents. As the man from Kazakhstan likes to say: Great success!
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"
Directed by Larry Charles; screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer; cinematography by Anthony Hardwick and Luke Geissbuehler; edited by Peter Teschner and James Thomas; music by Erran Baron Cohen; produced by Sacha Baron Cohen and Jay Roach. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Friday, Nov. 3. Running time: 1:22. MPAA rating: R (pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity and language).
Borat - Sacha Baron Cohen
Azamat - Ken Davitian
Luenell - herself
Pamela Anderson - herself