(2006)4Cammila CollarA clever guy like Sacha Baron Cohen must have had a hard time developing a feature-length film based on his Ali G Show character Borat. As hilarious and biting as Borat's mockumentary segments are, there's a certain squirm factor that makes the bumbling immigrant's schtick work best in small doses. Also, Baron Cohen's ability to go unrecognized and coax that incriminating candidness (or at least mortification) out of his interview subjects -- who believe their footage is intended solely for Kazakhstani TV -- has shrunk with his notoriety. Despite all this, Baron Cohen went for it, and the finished product of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is awesome -- genius in its infinite offensiveness to every man, woman, gypsy, rooster, grizzly bear, ice cream truck, and rodeo proprietor in America.
Baron Cohen is absolutely fearless, whether he's addressing a rodeo with hopes that George W. Bush drink the blood of every human in Iraq, or returning from the bathroom at a dinner party with his feces in a plastic bag. He's also brilliantly sly, arranging the improvised footage that makes up the bulk of the film within the loose framework of a fictional story. The staged material provides occasional breathers so the audience doesn't get wound up too tight. And it works, too; director Larry Charles does for Borat what Spike Jonze did for Jackass: The Movie, taking a small-scale funny concept and making it funnier through editing and arrangement (note details like the size of the black bar obscuring Baron Cohen's genitalia during his naked wrestling match with cohort Azamat).
It does create something of a dilemma, in that the scripted moments -- though hilarious -- leave you faintly disappointed that they aren't real, while a full 90 minutes of Borat unleashing his antics on bewildered citizens would probably send the audience into empathic embarrassment-shock on a scale surpassing any Ben Stiller movie. Even still, that conundrum is really the only flaw in an otherwise uproarious film. Well, that and the fact that, like any work of cunning satire, it can't possibly be appreciated by everyone. Baron Cohen doesn't advocate the trademark anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, or general brutishness of his character (most easily proved by noting that Baron Cohen himself is Jewish, and from a deeply religious family), and Borat's repugnant behavior is meant to make us laugh not with him, but at him -- and at the morons he's able to sucker into revealing their own ignorant side while he plays dumb. For those who can handle the irony, the formula is a great success. And for the rest, they probably won't want to see it anyway.