Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a prime example of why I hate star ratings. As a film, Borat has some occasionally funny scenes but is mostly a bore (2 stars). By attempting a “storyline” and infusing Jackass-like antics, it robs Borat of the weight he threw around on Da Ali G Show. Conceptually, however, the film goes after taboos and subjects that are easier to laugh at than discuss. For that, it should be commended (4 stars). So how did I wind up on a 2.5 star decision? Read on, dear reader.
By now, everyone knows Borat. He’s the offensively lovable Kazakstanian reporter whose cultural ignorance knows no bounds. Birthed from the comedic depths of Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat interviews Americans in hopes of learning more about the culture. While this formula is perfect for a 30-minute TV show, its transition onto the big screen in the form of Borat: Cutural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan meets the same failure that befalls many TV show-inspired movies.
The fact of the matter is that Borat is not interesting enough to maintain the comedic high-point in the first half-hour of the film. Watching Borat is like watching a caricature artist exaggerate the unique features of a person for more than an hour. In this case, Borat’s “unique features” happen to be anti-Semitic and homophobic. Halfway through the film, Borat is quickly boiled down to a series of catch phrases and awkward mannerisms. Amidst the “sexy times” and “great successes,” there is a moment when Cohen lets his guard down as Borat. In the scene when Borat is leaving the house of his prostitute friend, they say goodbye and Borat is genuinely reluctant to leave. He even says, “she say my name right, Borat.” This single, honest line teases us with a hint of sympathy for Borat as a character, but it passes as quickly as it arrived.
To keep the movie rolling from Borat encounter to encounter, a pathetic story line is introduced in which Borat must travel across America in search of his new bride-to-be – Pamela Anderson. Although the storyline is admittedly paper thin, the problem is that Borat works best as a vignette comedy. The idea of an overarching story, with very little pay off, detracts from the most dynamic aspect of Borat: the interviews.
Borat’s, and consequently Cohen’s, greatest strength is to expose a person’s prejudices using a subversive comic technique. Borat’s extremism is not meant to be anti-Semitic or homophobic as some contend, but rather to pit nearly universally negative ideas against that of common Americans and watch an equally negative reaction. Before the rodeo sequence, in which Borat butchers the National Anthem in front of a volatile Southern-American audience, Borat talks with a man who advises him to shave his mustache because he looks too much like a Muslim. This clearly bigoted remark is in response to Borat’s own naivety and hatred. Borat’s own prejudices allow this man to be comfortable with his own feelings and express them. On the other hand, Borat’s hatred of Jewish people and minorities is mirror by drunken frat brothers in another sequence, which resulted in a lawsuit filed by the boys after the film’s release. It’s funny that in a serious court of law, these gents would deny their racist remarks; yet in the company of other bigots, they have no problem joining in on the hate-fest.
Given his power to expose the an individual’s duality, it’s a shame that Cohen undermines it with physical comedy that has more in common with Jackass than his own wit. No more offensive example is that of the naked fight scene between Borat and his grossly overweight producer. The fight escalates into the hallways and elevator of a hotel and ends with a naked Borat beating his naked producer with a rubber fist in a reception hall-full of business types. At this point, the biting irony of Borat is diminished to a shock value. No longer are we amazed by other’s reactions to Borat, we are amazed by Borat’s own actions.
Perhaps there is a difference in a theatrical viewing and home viewing on DVD. While the theater would provide a communal event filled with anonymous laughs at the expense of fellow Americans and Borat’s exploits, a solitary home viewing reveals the sadness of close-minded Americans. The people that Borat meet on his journey across the country represent American majorities, many of which are just as extreme or hate-filled as Borat himself. The major difference being that they aren’t running through a crowded hotel naked with a rubber fist in hand.
The BoratDVD seems to follow the film’s pattern of high and lows. First off, it’s presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 video transfer that is crystal clear, even when the image is that of a hidden camera. The standard Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack provides clear dialogue and occasional fullness during a music cue. Dolby Digital 2.0 French and Spanish soundtracks are also available, just don’t choose the Hebrew option in the language selection menu.
On the surface, the Borat DVD appears to be light on supplements. The DVD would have been an excellent opportunity to hear Sacha Baron Cohen’s thoughts in a commentary track, and Borat’s thoughts in a second commentary track (ala the MGM This is Spinal Tap character commentary). Instead, we are given a set of featurettes and a handful of deleted scenes. The deleted scenes are arguably funnier than the film itself, especially a segment in a grocery store in which Borat tests the patience of the store manager by inquiring about each individual packet of cheese in the cheese section. They are definitely worth watching again and again.
The World Promotions Tour featurette is a 20-plus minute look at the various appearances of Borat prior to the film’s release and is the best feature on the disc. Borat torments the likes of Conan O’Brien, who looks insanely uncomfortable, and Jay Leno, who seems insanely comfortable. It also shows Borat public appearances, where he is praised by people who are made fun of in his film. It’s also a strange study of the popularity of a character, rather than a movie star. Hordes of people gather for a glimpse of Borat, but probably wouldn’t notice Sasha Baron Cohen walking down the street.
Rounding out the featurettes and the disc is a set of unrelated trailers, including the likes of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, which are barely watchable. The DVD packaging will also catch the eye. As soon as the slip cover is removed, there isn’t a readable word of English on the box. Open up the case and you’ll find a bootleg-looking disc that will make you think that you’ve been duped, if only for a moment.