I should probably begin by saying that I think Borat is a little creepy. I know that I’m supposed to find him bizarrely lovable — and the movie tries damn hard to make that happen — but I can’t help it. He scares me.
Some part of that may stem from the fact that the brand of humor that the admittedly brilliant Sacha Baron Cohen employs in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan makes me a bit uncomfortable. I would always squirm in my seat when forced to watch Candid Camera or Punk’d, because I don’t necessarily like watching people be weirded out and embarrassed, and Borat takes this to a new level: this is essentially a comedy of humiliation. And as there is no let-up to Cohen’s practical jokes, the film may, for some, be a draining experience even at under 90 minutes. I laughed a great deal, but I cringed almost as much — and as a result, Borat and I may never be great friends.
Thankfully, though, my uptight discomfort took a back seat to dozens of genuine, uncommonly loud, guilt-free belly laughs. I say “guilt-free” because while there would have been something dirty about laughing at the mostly very nice people Borat brutally mocks, Cohen does an extraordinary job of keeping the comedy contained in the title character. When Borat storms a Texas rodeo and delivers a piece of patriotic rabble-rousing that begins harmlessly enough but soon devolves into exhortations for George Bush to “drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq,” the film doesn’t lean on the crowd reactions for laughs (though they’re amusing in themselves): the joke is clever on its own. It’s what sets Borat apart from Punk’d
As for the various attempts to discern social commentary in Cohen’s silliness, preferably some that permits the writer to scoff at foreigners that dare criticize mainstream American culture (or better yet, feign neutrality while predicting a box-office downfall since red-blooded Americans don’t go for that sort of thing) — I am not sold. Yes, we get momentary views of some of our well-known cultural vices — homophobia, prudishness, hollow status obsession — but what I saw, mostly, was a lot of people doing their best to be nice, and understanding, and accomodating of “cultural differences,” even if their conceptions of cultural differences were kind of silly. So I’m not sure to what extent the film scorns them. Going to absurd lengths to hoodwink people (explanations of how team Borat pulled off the film’s pranks are all over the Internet) and then mocking them because they fell for it seems a touch unfair — and to its credit, I don’t think the movie is in the business of doing that.
Sociological observations are rendered irrelevant by Borat‘s final set piece, which left me gasping for breath. The obvious question is whether the subject of this particular bit is “in on the joke”; my first instinct was to say s/he had to have been, and I set off to the Internet to find the answer, but I ultimately realized that this ambiguity may be the best part. It’s beyond brilliant; the gag is both conceptually hilarious (if I described it, you’d laugh out loud) and perfect in execution.
For better or worse — mostly worse — the gutbusting finish follows a film that I found physically exhausting: so much embarrassment in such a short comedy. Others will respond differently, and there’s no denying that Borat is raunchy, gleefully offensive comedy gold. I’m still chortling about “The Running of the Jew.”