'Borat': THR's 2006 Review
On Nov. 3, 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen arrived in theaters with Borat, a surprise hit that nabbed more than $120 million at the box office. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
This year you are not going to find a more appalling, tasteless, grotesque, politically incorrect or slanderous film than Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. You probably won't laugh as hard all year, either. For once it's true: Borat has to be seen to be believed. Like an exploding cesspool at a country club dinner. Or a strip show in a cathedral. You just might want to stay through the credit crawl, too: The last shot is as funny as the first one.
Borat is a mockumentary revolving around one Borat Sagdiyev, a gangly, gray-suited journalist working for Kazakhstan's state-run TV network, who takes his mangled English and die-hard prejudices to America to make a documentary about life in the U.S. of A. Borat is the brainchild of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, creator and star of HBO's Da Ali G Show. The director of Borat is one of the inventors of modern TV comedy, Larry Charles, whose sure hand here shows that he has moved on from Masked and Anonymous, his unfortunate first misstep in cinema.
Borat played to many empty seats at initial festival screenings last week. But in its final screenings, turn-away crowds showed up thanks to the buzz. Here amid all this serious, high-minded art, audiences were greedy for a movie where everything, truly everything, is inappropriate. Fox may have a hit with Borat.
The movie begins in Kazakhstan (with Romania doing the honors), where Borat shows off his native village and its traditions. This includes the Running of the Jew, where young men flee down a corridor of terror before an individual in a huge mask that brings together just about every anti-Semitic caricature into one horrible visage. Borat then proudly introduces his sister, "the No. 4 prostitute in all of country."
He brings to America a host of prejudices so ingrained as to offend everyone he meets. His interview with a group of feminists revolves around his belief that a woman's brain is the size of a squirrel's. He is terrified of homosexuals, yet blithely practices his homeland's manly customs of men kissing each other and wrestling in the nude.
Borat is accompanied by his obese producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), who can't understand why they are crossing the country in a purchased ice cream truck instead of doing the interviews scheduled on the East Coast. He doesn't realize that his colleague has discovered his true love while watching reruns of Baywatch on TV: Pamela Anderson. Because she lives in California, that is now the promised land. He means to marry her Kazakhstan-style, which requires a burlap sack.
On the road, Borat takes hip-hop lessons from black youths. He tries to purchase a gun to protect himself from Jews. (He buys a bear instead.) He draws cheers from a crowd at a rodeo by chanting, "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!" He invites a large prostitute to a dinner party of religious conservatives.
The high point — which also is the low point — comes when he and his producer get into a very physical fight in their hotel room over Anderson, which spills into the hall, an elevator, the lobby and finally a convention in a banquet room. They are both buck naked, which is not a pretty sight.
So, is Borat a modern-day version of those old Polish jokes? The movie will have its detractors and defenders, but it's pretty clear the satiric attack isn't on bigotry so much as its origins — superstitions, traditions, ancestral animosities and beliefs in cultural and gender superiority, all firmly rooted in dire ignorance.
The weapon wielded by Cohen and Charles is crudeness. People today, especially those in public life, can disguise prejudice in coded language and soft tones. Bigotry is ever so polite now. So the filmmakers mean to drag the beast out into the sunlight of brilliant satire and let everyone see the rotting, stinking, foul thing for what it is. When you laugh at something that is bad, it loses much of its power. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on Sept 12, 2006