Kazakhstani TV presenter Borat Sagdiyev is commissioned to travel to New York to learn about American culture. While there he goes rogue, setting off for LA to follow his dream of making nice sexytime with Pamela Anderson
If you were ever partial to a bit of Ali G, you can be forgiven any trepidation you may feel towards Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest small-to-big-screen translation. With his juvenile observations and clueless gangsta-isms, Ali G was an amusing enough creation, but what made him work satirically was seeing him interact with real people. It wasn’t so much that he was a ludicrous ‘yoof’ TV presenter, but that his unsuspecting interviewees thought he was a ‘yoof’ TV presenter. So when Cohen took him out of that context and placed him in his own fictional world, the result wasn’t quite the comedy riot it could have been. You might have slapped an ASBO on it for indecent exposure, but it was certainly no riot…
With the Borat movie, Cohen’s learned his lesson. Like Ali G, Borat — who made his debut on Da Ali G Show, instantly becoming the funniest thing on it — works by being thrown in front of real people who, somehow, think he’s for real. So Cohen’s simply taken the format of the Borat sketches on the show and expanded them into episodes on a sorta-mockumentary East-to-West Coast road trip.
Perhaps it’s easy for us to say this, being in on the joke from the start, but Borat’s such an inherently funny character, it’s hard to believe that anyone could think he’s bona fide. Still, he is constructed with astounding precision. Clad in cheap grey suit, with grey tie and two-tone grey striped shirt, he walks in awkward little steps, his body language stuttering uncomfortable deference as an apologetic smile beams out from beneath his heavy ’tache. The accent drawls and lilts erratically, the broken English dribbling out plenty of catchphrases (“Jagshemash,” “naiiiice”, “haigh faive!”) and some gobsmackingly offensive comments.
Because, yes, as amiable as Borat is, he’s also sexist, deeply anti-Semitic and has an irrational hatred of gypsies. The film doesn’t exactly ease you into this gently: early on we see a depiction of his village’s traditional ‘Running Of The Jew’, in which we witness children playfully stamping on a huge egg laid by a “she-Jew”, encouraged by their elders to smash it before it hatches. To know that Cohen himself is Jewish may not, for some, be enough to excuse such outrageous humour, but this is all part of the set-up: the outrageousness isn’t so much in Borat’s prejudices, but in how those prejudices go unchallenged by his American interviewees.
Example: Borat walks into a gun shop. “Which gun is best for killing Jew?” he asks. The salesman doesn’t bat an eyelid. “That’d be a 9mm or .38,” comes the unhesitant reply. Cohen has impressively scant regard for his own well-being, but he’s sharp enough to know when to keep Borat schtum, too; in one instance he lets an ageing Texan cowboy hang himself with his own lariat, nodding silently as the objectionable old bigot lectures Borat on how he should shave off his moustache because it makes him look like a Muslim. (Borat, it should be noted, isn’t actually a Muslim; “In Kazakhstan, we worship hawk,” he solemnly tells the rodeo guy). Such ignorance provides very rich fuel for Cohen, and it keeps the comedy powerful — both in the strength of the laughs and the shock of the disbelief — throughout.
This isn’t just a few smirks and chuckles. Instead, it’s rib-crackingly, face-hurtingly, endorphin-flushingly hilarious. Empire laughed so hard we had a full-blown asthma attack. They should slap a health warning on this movie. And, all the while, you’re getting a very disturbing insight into the casual prejudices of the average American (although we recognise that Cohen was hardly going to include footage of those people who lambasted Borat for his views, or rumbled the ruse).
It’s tough to fault. One or two of the ‘sketches’ are admittedly reworks of wind-ups Cohen performed as Borat for Da Ali G Show here in the UK, while some of his interviews do feel either a tad clipped or too crowbarred into the coast-to-coast format. But you can’t ignore the force or the regularity of those laughs. This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s finest hour, a cult comedy that will likely endure and mature like an Airplane! or a This Is Spinal Tap. Just don’t go along if you’re easily offended…
Absurd, outrageous, gross, disturbing, insightful, and so funny it'll burst half the blood vessels in your face.