Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat,” with its long, marquee-resistant subtitle, arrives as the year’s most overhyped movie–more so even than “Snakes on a Plane.” Samuel L. Jackson’s flick might have been raised up high on the Internet before it flopped on arrival in theatres but was never acclaimed rapturously by the mainstream media before opening day, the way this picture has been. Although Cohen’s previous work has been limited to cult TV and a supporting part in “Talladega Nights” opposite Will Ferrell, if you believe the advance reports this film proves that he’s the new Groucho Marx, or W.C. Fields–or at least Peter Sellers–and the picture itself is bound to be a smash, one of the year’s biggest.
The advice from this quarter is to hold the hyperbole. To be sure, Cohen shows himself once again (as in “Nights”) an accomplished farceur, able to sustain a weird but oddly sympathetic character over the long haul, and some of the bits he and his cohorts have constructed for the comic odyssey of his supposedly Kazakh “journalist” across America have satiric bite. (The “Candid Camera”-like episodes have a different problem, about which more later.) But others are overextended and run out of steam fast. And though charges of anti-Semitism are unwarranted (the movie ridicules anti-Semitism rather than embracing it), the level of coarseness sometimes gets way out of hand. One’s reaction to any comedy is a personal matter, of course, but to this reviewer “Borat” isn’t all that hysterical, though it definitely has its moments.
The movie is more extended sketch than narrative, in which Cohen’s absurd character Borat Sagdiyev, an enthusiastically loopy, obliviously ignorant “reporter” from Kazakhstan–a place whose supposed backwardness he lampoons in the cartoonish style of old Zucker brothers pictures–comes to the U.S. with his beefy producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) to do a story on American attitudes, a project which Borat transforms–as a result of his infatuation with Pamela Anderson–into a cross-country jaunt to California. His procedure is to interview unsuspecting people and, in the persona of this lovably dopey buffoon (a kind of modern-day Candide uncomprehending of how his racist, sexist remarks will strike listeners) accost them with blithely offensive comments or questions that take them off guard and induce them to reveal their own prejudices or blind spots. As a satire of American mores–smugly superior, chauvinistic, prone to excess, condescending, bigoted–some of this stuff hits the target. And as a portrait of a lovable goofball, the movie is amusing in spots. But while Cohen comes off as a more cerebral version of Jerry Lewis, he’s still like Jerry Lewis, and the shtick seems more than a little tired by the eighty-minute mark.
Even more problematical, perhaps, is the question of method. Like the old “Candid Camera” crew, Cohen takes advantage of the credulity of people. But Allen Funt and company used to do that affectionately. Here there’s a real mean streak beneath the surface jocularity: the way Cohen and his cohorts treat their targets borders on abuse. They induce people to participate by employing elaborate ruses to buttress their pretended credentials, and then secure inexpensive pre-releases from them to insure that they can’t legally back out after filming; then they in effect ambush them. The effect may be funny, especially when Cohen’s malapropisms are so well chosen (as when he sings the national anthem in front of a rodeo crowd, replacing the words with some exalting Kazakhstan); but you might be ashamed to laugh because, after all, an ambush is still an ambush. Maybe the drunken frat boys get what they deserve, and the couple that owns the Confederate army souvenir shop, but are all the others so deserving of ridicule? Even in an age when apparently anything goes in popular culture, that seems more than a bit crass. And there’s apparently no apology for the embarrassment caused by the encounters, even when, as in some cases (as recently reported), they’ve led to job losses. Is it joshing, or is it cruelty? (At least the “Jackass” troupe harm only themselves.)
Then there’s the obviously scripted portions of the movie–the Kazakhstan opening, of course, which is pretty funny in a nasty way, but other segments, too. Often these are taken so far that they just become gross. The worst example is an extended wrestling match between Borat and Azamat in a hotel, in which both the spindly star and the disgustingly overweight “producer” are naked except for an absurdly big rectangle as a censoring device. It makes one yearn for the slightest hint of subtlety in getting a laugh–something that’s in really short supply in this age when restraint seems the only four-letter word left.
By opting to give his movie a long, ludicrous subtitle, Cohen seems to be inviting comparisons with past classics. By that standard it falls short. It’s no “Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It’s not even a “Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck.” It’s inevitable that those who react to the movie with the mixed feelings expressed here will be dismissed by some as fuddy-duddies who can’t appreciate truly inspired satiric performance art, but to me “Borat” isn’t a work of genius, just a cable comedy sketch with some sharply funny bits but overextended, needlessly crude and ultimately as smug in its own way as some of the unfortunate people it derides.