Late in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” our hero finds himself in a dire straits. Broke and abandoned, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) desperately stumbles into a service of a Texas revivalist church. Unaware of the gathering’s purpose, the clueless Kazakhstani tells the head preacher that he needs to be saved. As the entire congregation begins praying for the salvation of his soul, Borat asks the preacher and the congregation if Jesus loves him. The preacher and the crowd respond with an enthusiastic yes. Borat inquiries further: does Jesus love his mother? Does Jesus love his mentally challenged brother? The congregation answers his queries with rhapsodic affirmations.
As audience members watching “Borat,” we can’t help but remain perched on the edge of our seats, giggling with nervous anticipation. On his journalistic mission to chronicle American life and culture, the film’s mustachioed protagonist has, at some point, offended every racial, ethnic, and gender group he has come into contact with. Now, in the presence of the wild-eyed pastor and enraptured congregation, we gleefully wait for what question Borat will ask of them next. What obliviously inappropriate non-sequitur will pull the rug out from under the churchgoers, revealing shockingly inherent prejudices, all for the delight of the audience?
Here’s the thing: it never comes. The scene ends, not with a squirm-inducing comic reversal, but a tired gag involving Borat’s attempt to speak in tongues along with the preacher. The sequence, bursting with comic potential, simply concludes; it never explodes.
Watching “Borat,” the rare film that has earned both critical acclaim and box-office blessings, this feeling struck me often, and I wondered why. No doubt, “Borat” contains some truly funny moments, packing an impressively diverse amount of humor in its eighty-four minutes that ranges from political satire to a hysterical running gag involving a chicken in a suitcase.
The level of hyperbole surrounding the film’s release, however, set me up for something more. “As Borat Sagdiyev, a visitor from Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen is a balls-out comic revolutionary,” gushed “Rolling Stone” film critic Peter Travers, “right up there with Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Dr. Strangelove, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Cartman at exposing the ignorant, racist, misogynist, gay-bashing, Jew-hating, gun-loving, warmongering heart of America.” Even the normally reserved Manohla Dargis of “The New York Times” did not mince words: “The brilliance of ‘Borat’” is that its comedy is as pitiless as its social satire, and as brainy.“
Watching ”Borat,“ however, I could not help but feel that this emperor, crowned the provocateur de jour by pundits and audiences, had no clothes. ”Borat“ walks a tightrope of meta-comedy that few attempt: are we laughing at the stereotypes being presented, or the ridiculousness of the stereotypes, or both? However, the very nature of the Borat character ultimately walls off any true satirical provocation the film could incite.
What is Borat if not a human cartoon? Cohen’s performance paints a broad comic picture of the typical wacky foreigner, complete with a funny accent, outdated clothes, and a deluded faith in the America exported to his native country of Kazakhstan. We, as audience members, are invited to appreciate him for the walking caricature he is. Furthermore, his ethnicity remains amorphous enough so we don’t feel particularly bad about it. The Kazakhstan the film presents, with its hovels and wizened old women wrapped in black shawls, comes from the generalized worldview of American cinema, not a specific satirical critique of an individual country. Imagine the change had Cohen made Borat, say, a Sunni or Shiite?
If we’re expected to laugh at Borat’s wacky antics and ethnic tics, we’re also kept at a fairly comfortable distance from his blatant prejudices. Borat is nothing if an overgrown man-child, with his wide-eyed enthusiasm and love of ”High-Fives!“ When he calmly explains his opinions of the Jews as shape-shifting monsters, or his view that women should be sexually submissive slaves, the audience can safely laugh at this. They take comfort in the knowledge that these words come from a wholly ridiculous figure, an innocent soul wrapped in debauchery.
This is not to demean Cohen’s performance, an impressive feat of comic timing and nuance. But a comic is only as shocking as his material. Once you understand that the film’s content is being filtered through a harmless, familiar comic type, the uncomfortable self-reflection that the sharpest satire inspires is blunted and diffused.
Borat’s multitude of American interviews provides the clearest example of this. Much has been made about a scene in which Borat, looking to defend himself against an imagined Jewish menace, asks a Midwestern gun store clerk what’s the best type of gun to kill a Jew. After a moment’s reflection, the clerk makes his suggestion: the Glock. This, justifiably, was met with a chorus of horrified gasps of laughter in the screening I attended. Look past the extremism of the comment itself, however, and one finds little more than a reinforcement of red state stereotypes.
Other interviews follow suit: New Yorkers are pushy and brusque; feminists are cold and haughty; Southerners are xenophobic bigots. What, exactly, is so shocking about this? ”Borat“ chronicles the extremist fringes of these clichés without really engaging the audience in anything new or relevant regarding them. For blue staters, it provides yet another opportunity to shake our heads in comic dismay at the rest of the country. Evangelical Christians do the darndest things!
This combination of audience distance and ultimately familiar content fails to turn the tables on the audience because ”Borat“ becomes unable to truly own its own offensiveness. A film like ”The Aristocrats,“ the 2005 documentary on the supposed dirtiest joke ever told, is memorable for its willingness to plunge head-first into comic depravity. What makes it so effective, however, is the way each comic telling the joke develops such fierce ownership over his or her own truly vile thoughts. Bob Saget’s famous rendition of the joke is funny, not just because of its obscene cleverness, but because of the perverse pride Saget takes in its every detail. ”Borat,“ for all its willingness to parade around American bigotries, ultimately plays it too safe to truly smack the audience across the face the way the most shocking comedies, and the sharpest satires, do.
I’m not trying to dismiss ”Borat;“ it’s a perfectly acceptable and occasionally uproarious comedy. But as a cultural provocation, it leaves much to be desired. Perhaps it’s too harsh to declare this emperor has no clothes; but it’s fair to say that the cut of the outfit is far more conventional that many would care to admit.