This film review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 23rd November 2006
Directed by Larry Charles
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian & many others
I used to think that Sacha Baron Cohen was a moderately talented British comic who occasionally pushed the envelope with his Ali G character. After seeing Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan my opinion changed; I am now in awe of what this Jewish comedian can do.
As co-writer and star, Sacha Baron Cohen has created one of the most hilarious, politically incorrect and decisively satiric films in many years. Cohen plays “Borat Sagdiyev”, the “son of Asimbala and Boltok the rapist”, a reporter for Kazakhstan television sent to America to do a documentary. He comes from a desperately poor Kazakh village which we see in the opening and closing scenes (and which was shot in Romania), where they “have three problems: the economy, the social and the Jew.” With that, Borat nails his colours – he is a casual and thorough antisemite (as well as a misogynist). In an early scene from his village, he reports on the “running of the Jew”, where large antisemitic mockups of a Jewish man and woman are systematically harassed through the streets.
Borat follows in the tradition of “mockumentary” (parody documentary popularised by Rob Reiner in This is Spinal Tap), but with a peculiar, ironic and very Sacha Baron Cohen twist: most of the film is REAL documentary, with unwitting subjects thinking that they are being interviewed by a real Kazakh reporter.
After arriving in New York, he and his producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian, frequently speaking in Armenian) take off on a road trip through the American south heading for Los Angeles – and an odyssey to find Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Later scenes – some of which have already entered popular movie folklore – include Borat asking a gunstore clerk which is the best gun for shooting Jews (although it is the straight response that most amazes) and a drunken rave with a number of college kids where they complain that the world is being taken over by women, ethnics and Jews, excluding good white Christian men.
In expressing antisemitism, Cohen runs a considerable risk of being taken at face value, because Borat the film operates on two very distinct levels: on the surface is laugh-out-loud physical comedy with bags of excrement, naked wrestling and a deeply prejudiced but simplistic lead character. But underneath is a multi-layered satire on American values and prejudices – and our reactions to them. Only a small number of non-Jewish viewers will get the joke that his Borat character is frequently speaking Hebrew when supposedly speaking Kazakh. This operates as a “wink wink” to Jews, saying “see, the joke’s on them”, and can also identify Borat the Kazakh as an “outsider” in the way that all Jews are ultimately outsiders in predominantly Christian countries.
Cohen has cleverly drawn from other Jewish comics in his use and fascination with antisemitism: Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall was obsessed with it, and Mel Brooks used the comic antisemite to great effect in his two film and one stage versions of The Producers. Brooks also used a Yiddish-speaking Native American and African-Americans joking about “niggers” in Blazing Saddles. We can also detect shades of Lenny Bruce’s rage – and that of Australia’s own Austen Tayshus for that matter – in Borat. Cohen also proves to be an extraordinary physical comic, with a strong resonance to Ben Stiller’s characters in There’s Something About Mary, Zoolander and Meet the Parents.
Some scenes are almost re-produced straight from other Jewish comedies: when Borat accidentally trashes part of an antique shop, it appears to be choreographed and timed exactly as Woody Allen’s character trashed his flat in Play It Again Sam. And when Borat goes to a Christian revival meeting and gets “saved”, I immediately thought of an identical scene in John Safran’s recent Australian television series. When Azamat appears dressed up like Charlie Chaplin, Borat comments that he does not want to see someone who looks like Hitler – a direct reference to Chaplin’s classic The Great Dictator.
Cohen – and his director Larry Charles, the Jewish television writer and director of Seinfeld and others – know exactly what they are doing. Borat the film achieves something few movies ever do: wrapped in simplicity is a deeply thought satire. Most popular movies do the opposite: their apparent complexity only hides the bankruptcy of ideas at the core.