I confess being very surprised how successful Borat has been. When I first encountered the publicity for the film, I thought that it would have an impact comparable to Sasha Baron-Cohen’s other film, Ali G Indahouse, that it would play to a niche audience and then quietly disappear. But while apparently it’s not playing too well in American theatres (unsurprising given that the American mindset is the target of much of the satire), it’s received rave reviews (Rottentomatoes’ reviews are 96% positive) and it’s being lauded in more than one place as ‘The funniest film of all time’.
So I was a little disappointed to find the movie good, but not great. It’s funny, and I’m glad I saw it, but I wouldn’t want to see it again. It has some great laughs, but it’s not up there with the Monty Python films or that other great mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap.
The film opens in a village in Kazakhstan whose dilapidation is cartoonish, and its inhabitants more so. Borat, a television personality in his country (though who watches televisions when there’s still one telephone per village?), shows us around his hometown. Here is the village rapist, and here is Borat’s sister, who has won an award for being the country’s number four prostitute. If you’re going to get the joke, you will have got it by now. Anyone who still thinks Borat is a real Kazakh and finds their own prejudices confirmed by this movie is unlikely to ever understand satire – or reason. Interestingly, this segment also contains several direct references to Borat-like Internet celebrity Mahir (first meme I ever saw!), who I’ve always thought at least partially inspired the character, even though apparently Baron-Cohen has been developing him since long before Mahir’s page was hacked.
Borat goes to America in an attempt to edify his compatriots on what makes a country great, but when he sees Pamela Anderson on Baywatch, he decides he’s going to marry her and sets off to find the busty superstar. This is the totality of the plot, which is really a vehicle for getting the Borat character to meet various people, both formally and informally, and this is what Sasha Baron-Cohen does best. He’s not great at thinking up jokes (when Borat appeared on Letterman, every single funny line was taken directly from the film) but what he’s great at is interviewing people in character, be it as Ali G, Borat or Bruno, and letting the interviewee’s prejudices show themselves. I thought that the real disappointment of the film was that there wasn’t more of this. I loved watching people getting wound up in their own prejudice on The Eleven O’Clock Show, or Ali G’s own series, but here interviews I think are going to be great showcases of what Baron-Cohen can really do, such as the ones with a group of feminists or an eminent black politician are wasted on artificially linking to pre-filmed set-pieces; they could have been interviews with anyone. Even the horribly prejudiced rednecks and frat-boys whose opinions really make the liberally-minded viewer wince don’t really need Borat to lead them to say what they say. There’s nothing of the surprise of extracting something unexpected or of using the Borat character to show hidden prejudices that make Baron-Cohen’s TV work so special here: all the prejudice is either on the surface anyway or hidden too obviously to be satisfying when revealed, as in the posh Southern dinner party.
However, there are some riotous set-pieces, like the ones at the rodeo or in a hotel. Some of the parts that seem unstaged clearly are not, but you don’t realise until after the shock of what just happened has hit you.
The funniest film I’ve seen in a long time, certainly, but not the funniest film ever by a long, long way, and also, by a similar distance, far from the best work Sasha Baron-Cohen has ever done.