NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (*** out of ****) may be vulgar and unfair, but, for most of the way, it's damn funny, and I laughed all the way through.
Is there really much more to be said about this comedy---still No. 1 at the box office for the second week in a row---that hasn't already been said by other, better critics than I? Not really, so I'm just basically one more voice adding to the chorus of critical hosannahs this movie has been receiving from nearly everyone (except, say, near-reliable contrarian Armond White at the New York Press). So let me just suggest the reason I personally liked Borat, other than the simple fact that it made me laugh (and it certainly made me laugh more consistently than that glorified sitcom Little Miss Sunshine earlier this year).
Maybe it's just that I find the premise of this film so brilliant. What is the premise? Ostensibly, it's about this Kazakhstani who comes to America in order to try to learn more about it, but who gets sidetracked when he starts getting the hots for Pamela Anderson. That's the film's barely-there "plot." But what Sacha Baron Cohen has done with his character Borat is to conceive a character that embodies vulgarity and prejudice, pit this character into America, and try to see how we supposedly inclusive Americans react to such a character. Yeah, it was probably a risk to actually use a real country for his cinematic stunt (and of course the Kazakhstan government banned the film, for obvious reasons)---but of course Cohen's subjects would have seen right through his pose if he had used a fake country name. It's all a part of his stunt: Borat as a sounding board of sorts for most of our social ills.
What Cohen's remarkable stunt reveals isn't necessarily fresh or insightful---the limits of politeness in "civilized" society, the existence of certain intolerant attitudes (certainly more convincingly demonstrated here than it was in last year's hopelessly crude and contrived Crash), our obsession with image without considering the human being underneath---but mainly I was just dazzled by the breadth of Cohen's stunt and his satirical eye. This isn't just gratuitous shock comedy designed to make you laugh at its sheer outrageousness. It is outrageous---that extended nude-wrestling scene between Borat and his manager pushes the limits of outrageousness, to screamingly funny effect---but it's outrageous for a genuine, absurdist purpose. It's very smart about being dumb.
No, the movie isn't always fair to its real-life participants. When that gun-store owner responds to Borat's question about what's the best gun to shoot Jews, for instance, it seems like the movie is intended to make us think the owner is some kind of bigot, when in fact it may be just that he's just either trying to be polite. And of course there's that rodeo rider who, in responding to something Borat has said, says that they've been trying to get rid of homosexuals for years. Yet another instance of smug red-state condescension?
Perhaps. But Cohen isn't just aiming at red-staters. Borat is, like Dave Chappelle and like the two South Park creators, an equal-opportunity offender, so that both red states and blue states are targeted, and general decorum is blown-up sky high. As with all good satires, Borat is both hilarious and troubling, sometimes because of what it says, and sometimes because of how it says it. But as Pauline Kael wrote in her (negative) review of Network, "satire doesn't have to be fair to be funny."