Eric D. Snider

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Movie Review

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: A

Released: November 3, 2006

 

Directed by:

Cast:

There are so many brilliant things about "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" that I don't even know where to start. It's breathtakingly funny, and I mean that during some scenes I literally laughed so hard I couldn't breathe. But more than that, it's one of the most astute satires of American culture that I've ever seen. It's not "politically incorrect" just for the sake of being outrageous. There's a point to it -- actual satire, in other words, not just random acts of goofiness.

Borat is the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen and is one of several characters played by the British comedian in HBO's "Da Ali G Show." In his native Kazakhstan, Borat is a well-known TV news reporter, a happy-go-lucky fellow with an enthusiasm for life and an utter unawareness of how sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic he is. He comes by it innocently, with no malicious intent, apparently unaware that there's anything hateful about such attitudes.

In the HBO sketches as well as in this movie, Borat comes to America to learn about our culture, interviewing ordinary folks along the way. These people don't know Borat is a character being played by an actor; I suspect the ones who catch on, or who have seen Borat on HBO and are wise to him, don't make the final cut. We see only the innocent bystanders, trying to be polite and friendly to a man who is completely clueless about Western society's rules of etiquette, decorum and hygiene. Because while Borat is offensive, he doesn't KNOW he's offensive, you see. So there's no point getting mad at him.

In the film, he's here with a cameraman and his producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), to document his stay in New York City. He meets with a feminist group and a humor coach early on, both examples of the sort of scenarios the HBO series puts him in, where a meeting is prearranged and the unwitting participants must contend with Borat's strange ways.

Then we catch a whiff of a plot: Borat sees Pamela Anderson on TV and falls madly in love with her. He insists they take their documentary on a road trip to California so he can meet her, giving him a chance to see middle America along the way. He doesn't tell Azamat his real reason for wanting to go, though. "What's in California?" Azamat demands. Borat replies, "Pearl Harbor is there. So is Texas."

There are brief interludes with politicians in Washington, but the film, directed by "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" veteran Larry Charles, is more interested in the common man. There are extended sequences in Virginia, Alabama and Texas, as well as the usual road-trip hijinks one expects from a cross-country drive. The film is an exotic mix, then, of TV-style "stunt" scenes involving unsuspecting bystanders, and scenes featuring only Baron Cohen and Davitian. The former can only be planned insofar as you set things in motion and see how people react, while the latter can be more tightly scripted. Wisely, Charles and the actors maintain a loose, improvised feel even on those latter scenes, keeping the tone consistent regardless of whether a scene was actually off-the-cuff or not.

One nice touch is that even when actors could be used, Charles prefers to use hapless civilians to do his dirty work. For example, in one scene Borat must receive a telegram from his village in order to advance the plot. It's a brief scene; you could easily hire an actor to play the guy delivering the telegram. But instead, the filmmakers sent a real wire to a real telegram office and had a real employee bring the notice to Borat's hotel room. Why? Because Borat's unorthodox reaction to the news is much funnier when there's a witness who doesn't know it's all an act.

You see, the film ratchets up the humor by having its actors do their thing out in public, amid non-actors. The idea is that a man running naked through a hotel is only mildly funny if it's a standard movie scene. Audiences know that it's a closed-off hallway where only actors and technicians are present, and not an actual functioning hotel. But if we can see that it's a real hotel, and that the people around the naked man don't know it's for a movie, then it's 10 times funnier. At LEAST 10 times funnier.

I am in awe of Baron Cohen and Davitian's dedication to their characters, by the way. The things they do in broad daylight in full view of crowds who don't know they're only actors are astounding. You think it would be embarrassing to do something foolish on stage? Imagine doing it on a street, where people won't know you're performing and will think you just ARE that way.

The film's most sparkling asset, though, is the way it uses the fictional Borat and his fictional bigotry to bring out the real bigotry in real people. I liked this instance: Borat generally kisses everyone he meets on both cheeks, but an old man in the South rebuffs him, saying we don't do that sort of thing over here. People think you're "funny" if you kiss another man. Borat understands he's talking about homosexuals and says that in Kazakhstan, they hang those people. The old man replies, "We're trying to get that done here, too!" And your brain snaps: Wait a minute, WHAT? Borat -- i.e., Sacha Baron Cohen -- was only kidding. But this guy is SERIOUS.

See also the RV full of drunken frat boys who expound their philosophies on women, or the fancy Southern banquet -- held at Magnolia Springs Manor on Secession Drive in Helena, Ala. -- that comes to an abrupt halt when Borat arranges for a "guess who's coming to dinner" surprise. You hear about people so racist they can't stand to be in the same room as one of "them," but to actually MEET one....

I don't take any of this as an anti-American screed, though. I doubt Baron Cohen would be surprised to find people like this in his native England, too. Borat has an infectious love for America, and I get the feeling it's only slightly sarcastic on the part of the filmmakers. It's scathing satire, audacious, ridiculous and screamingly riotous -- but it's not mean-spirited. It's just funny. Good heavens, is it ever funny.

[Note: We later learned that the filmmakers cheated a bit in some scenes. Magnolia Springs Manor is not on Secession Drive, for example: The "Secession Drive" sign was filmed somewhere else and interposed to make it look like it's where the house was.]

Grade: A

Rated R, abundant non-sexual nudity, some harsh profanity, plenty of vulgarity and crass humor

1 hr., 22 min.

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Notes:

In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.

This item has 29 comments

  1. Carly says:

    Wow! Last night I saw a free screening of Borat with my husband and my 2 sisters and my stomach still hurts today from laughing. I have NEVER in my life seen anything as funny as this movie. It is crass, but extremely intelligent humor. I'm glad you gave it an "A". If it was possible to give an "A+" this film would certainly earn it.

  2. Jerry says:

    Hilarious! I have never laughed so hard and for so long as I did during the first half of this movie. It slows a bit during the second half, but my wife (and I) almost died with laughter during the wrestling match later in the movie. I can't wait to see it again. (BTY, I'm Jewish and I think that the over-the-top bashing was even more hilarious becaus of this.)

  3. Alexandre Brinovisky says:

    This movie is not so funny as is saying. No one makes for the comments when joke or if for real!

  4. Aaron says:

    This film is on strange! I do not know that you speak, Alexandre. Aren't you fanatic to strike old Soviet states?

    (English to French to German to English translation by Google)

  5. mastershake says:

    My brother caught an advance screening and called this "the greatest film ever made."

  6. matt says:

    Larry DAVID, not Larry CHARLES.

  7. Eric D. Snider says:

    #6: If you mean to say that it is Larry David who directed the film and not Larry Charles, you are mistaken. It is indeed Larry Charles, as stated in the review.

  8. Snapmaster Flash says:

    Oh Snap!

  9. Martin says:

    Saw it yesterday, and it is funny. Sometimes I squirmed, sometimes I laughed, sometimes I did both.

    I spotted a couple of funny entries in the end credits, too. ;-)

  10. Jeff says:

    On Larry Charles vs. Larry David:

    It is Larry Charles who directed this movie. Larry Charles also did direct a number of Seinfeld episodes which Larry David is well known for as well.

    The mistake is that Larry Charles NEVER directed Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb Your Enthusiasm is Larry David.

    Larry Charles was involved however with Entourage. Simply a case of too many men with too many first names.

  11. Jeff J. Snider says:

    According to IMDB, Larry Charles has been credited as director on eight episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

  12. Eric D. Snider says:

    Larry David, meanwhile, has never directed any TV show in his entire life. Written and starred in, yes. Directed, no.

    IMDB, folks! It can by used by anyone. I do appreciate being informed of mistakes I've made, and I do make them. But seriously, how many people are going to say I got the Larry Charles/Larry David thing wrong without actually double-checking first to see if I'm actually wrong? 'Cuz I'm not, and it can be verified in a matter of seconds at IMDB.

  13. Michael says:

    Borat is a movie classic which should stand on it's own merit and not be wattered down with 10 sequels. A movie this funny should stand alone.

  14. Suskie says:

    Could you even make a sequel? Now that he's become so popular, could you still fool people with the Borat character?

  15. David Manning says:

    I think not.

  16. Genevieve says:

    I wanted to see this movie before, but after this review, I MUST see this movie!! I can't believe there is still so much ignorance in this country...but if there wasn't, I guess we wouldn't have this movie. Btw, on the commercials, I always feel bad for that one woman at the table that he basicly says is ugly...and that his country would love the other two attractive women. That's kinda sad.

  17. Peter says:

    "IMDB, folks! It can by used by anyone. I do appreciate being informed of mistakes I've made, and I do make them. But seriously, how many people are going to say I got the Larry Charles/Larry David thing wrong without actually double-checking first to see if I'm actually wrong? 'Cuz I'm not, and it can be verified in a matter of seconds at IMDB."

    Ha! I checked.

  18. Kalav says:

    I think this not funny. Borat make my country look like having bad people and cold. I mean there are not as much prostitutes as he makes seem and I think he may not be real from Kazakhstan anyway.

  19. Lina says:

    This movie should not get any ratings at all!!!!!!!!IT IS ROTTEN!!!!!!!!!!!
    To all parents: If you really care about your children then please please spare them from this movie which will only bring mental damage to them. (On the day I went to see the movie about 90% of teenagers and young adults attended this movie).

    The movie is absolutely inhumane, extremely offensive towards believes of any kind, disgusting, overall: sick to the highest degree possible. And the saddest part is that with this movie the makers prove themselves to be idiots in the highest rank, and should be banned from the movie industry FOREVER!!!!!
    The fact that this movie was allowed to come out in the theatre is the worst of all. And I absolutely despise the coward who came up with this absolutely idiotic idea.

    Considering that Americans are already sitting in a s**t hole(pardon me for that language)as it is, they should think about proper education of their children instead of providing their nation with such idiotic movie productions.

    I am extremely shocked by what is happening to North Americans (and not only). Where have their leaders gone wrong to raise such a primitive nation that would allow such films to be shown.....these people should be shot.....because they put the rest of the nation into a big pest whole.

    In conclusion....If you really enjoy watching gay sex, naked fat men wrestling, feces revealed publicly, inappropriate showings of male genital areas, and women's breast milk to be turned into "Kazakh cheese"....go ahead and watch the movie and kill your braincells!!!!!

    With this movie review I hope I made myself clear!
    PS. I am still terrified that I have paid $8 to see this movie....my brain still hurts.

  20. Cody Parrott says:

    to #18: I don't think you read Eric's review at all... he's an actor, not a real person, and no.. he is not from Kazakhstan.

    to #19: I think simply the R rating would keep me from letting my children watch the movie. . . also, the satire in this movie is among the most intelligient! To call them "idiots of the highest ranks" is simply ignorant. This movie displays the common ingnorance that exists all over our country at the most simple level. If anything, every American SHOULD see the movie. Yes, it's offensive, yes it's inhumane . . . so is racism, and bigotry, and intollerance.

  21. Dave says:

    I enjoyed the review in comment #19 more than Eric's review (!! !!! !!), although I agree with Eric more (!!1). In response to Lina (#19), o yes, clear as day. I hope your terror subsides. Once I lost a $20 bill and was frightened for a month.

  22. Mark Brinton says:

    The film is nothing more than an effort to go a standard deviation beyond Candid Camera, to see how people respond to a naive foreigner. I see the film as a testament to the large majority of Americans who bend over backwards to be polite and welcoming to a goofy visitor. This film doesn't hold a candle to "Little Miss Sunshine." Now there's a film that not only made me nearly laugh my head off, but provided one of the most poignant scenes ever - Olive's effort to console her heart-broken brother.

  23. Steve says:

    To Lina (#19): I haven't seen the movie, but how could it possibly be more offensive than your post? Go read the Bill of Rights and then the First Amendment to the Constitution, and then come back here and tell us if you really want to live in a country where movies are banned, or movie producers shot. Your post is horrific.

    Another mistake you seem to be making is confusing our education system with the entertainment industry. They are not the same thing, nor should they be. I'm not saying that there aren't problems with our country's education system, but they won't be fixed by banning movies and shooting producers.

  24. chris j says:

    I liked Cohen's TV show interviews quite a bit, too. I liked some of the Ali G Show interviews, but this movie is worse. For those of you that have no idea, this movie is like Candid Camera, the old TV show, but more boring and with more penis shots. I wish I'd done almost anything else rather than waste time watching this movie.

  25. Mary says:

    to #23 I give you a big AMEN!

  26. Graeme Phillips says:

    Sacha Baron-Cohen seems to be just another one of those smug Hollywood liberals who get their jollies from making Deep South people out to be backward, as was done very self-indulgently in Forrest Gump. It's a shame he can't set out to make smug liberal tofu-chomping latte-sipping hybrid-driving San Franciscans look bad instead, as it is very tiresome when people make Southerners out to be backward.

  27. kw says:

    to #26 but smug liberal tofu chomping latte sipping hybrid driving SanFranciscans are too BORING to really be funny. only really flaky old hippy liberals are amusing, as all movie ticket buyers know

  28. ceejay says:

    Let me say it's been a while since I saw this movie, but I would rate the movie 2 out of 10. Let me also reveal that I've enjoyed watching and re-watching the tv show on DVD. But most of this movie I sat there with a couple quiet buddies wondering why Sacha thought he was so clever over and over again. Maybe it's because I grew up in the south so I'm not shocked to hear people say homo-hating, xenophobic, racist, and generally bigoted stuff WITHOUT being prompted by a professional. And, as far as I can tell, I'm not some uptight, Puritan that censors everything that comes though the door, and neither are my friends. HBO shows are the staple. We are always on the look-out for something outrageously, deviantly hilarious. This just wasn't it. At the end of the movie I had a headache and my buddy had a stomach ache, but unlike other viewers of Borat, apparently, it wasn't the good kind of hurt.

  29. CW says:

    "(On the day I went to see the movie about 90% of teenagers and young adults attended this movie)."

    Wow, that must have been one full movie theater!

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