Sometimes you feel like the world doesn’t get the joke. So with Borat, one of the year’s best reviewed movies and rating a 96 at Rotten Tomatoes. (It has a lengthy subtitle which you can pull off the Internet if interested.) Entertainment Weekly even asked if it was the funniest movie ever or just the most outrageous, offensive one. Well, as it turns out none of that’s true. Oh, Borat is offensive but usually in easily digestible form. And the claimed political satire is so diffuse that it really doesn’t make much impact. It seems like Borat is being taken at face value for claims made about it but not for what the film actually does.
But start with the comedy. There’s a scene where Borat is in an antique shop and—gasp—accidentally breaks some dishes. While he tries to recover he continues to break more and just the laughter never stops. This stuff was tired when Lucy did it and there’s nothing new here. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel that this is some kind of balance for the store owner supporting display of the Confederate flag but if so that’s about as easy a target as you can get. Same for the Texas rodeo manager who tells Borat to avoid kissing men or even the misogynist frat boys (who I’m guessing are supposed to be alums). It’s hardly news that such people exist. (Though I do like that towards the start is an entire scene about the nature of comedy, perhaps the equivalent to Plato’s lost dialogue Komedie.)
But do these people exist? Apparently sections of Borat were filmed with real, off-the-street people and that’s where it gets dicey. Certainly not all scenes since some are obvious set-ups but it’s easy enough to image that several are real. So a driving instructor, car salesman, comedy instructor, news reporter, all get their willingness to help thrown back at them. But there’s one scene at a dinner party with three older Southern couples, supposedly in Birmingham. These people go out of their way to be polite and helpful to Borat but he continually tries to humiliate them, eventually even bringing a prostitute to the dinner. Now what was the point? That they suffered his antics longer than many others would? That they wanted him to feel welcome and have a good time? The inhumanity! I read one review that claims their response to the prostitute—who is black and skimpily clad even though she’s fairly obese—show how racist they are though I can’t imagine that their reactions would have been any different if she was white. Enough was simply enough. For all I know this entire scene was staged; almost certainly the prostitute wasn’t real (the IMDB lists her as both an actor and an actress, suggesting either they confused two filmographies or she has an interesting biography). Real or not, it seems as if the point was to make viewers feel superior to the yokels. That’s why I sincerely hope the mortgage convention that he crashes in the nude was not real; people there might be enjoying themselves on a trip from home or might be bored at the demands of their job but they don’t deserve to have a private night interrupted in such a way.
Similarly with the feminist group towards the start of the film. Certainly there’s some feminist rhetoric that deserves satirical skewering but Borat gets nowhere close to that. Again, the point is unclear. There’s a purely narrative function (one woman IDs the CJ on TV as Pamela Anderson) and perhaps even filling in the character bit that Borat has a quite backwards view of women, though that’s already been made pretty clear. But satire? I think of all the Monty Python characters who are confronted with something that doesn’t meet their world view—guards who won’t guard, self-defense instructors focused on vegetables, a shop owner who won’t admit he sold a dead parrot. In fact, Life of Brian is pretty much nothing but an attack on the limits of systematic thinking. But I see none of that in this scene or in Borat in general. The feminists don’t even go beyond common sense and the same reactions probably would have come from most men. Borat is so far out that there’s no way to make a satiric connection even if there was a target here.
Just check out the pentecostal revival towards the end. Borat gets swept up in the fervor but despite a couple of very timid bits (“Mr. Jesus” and the line about his “retarded brother” that the preacher changes to simply “brother”) there’s nothing aimed at them, expect probably the shot that they all step over his sleeping body to enter the building. Perhaps this type of speaking-in-tongue religion parodies itself but it feels to me exactly that Sacha Cohen (Borat’s creator) knew the line where he had to stop. Yep, OK to make fun of politicians, Southerners, feminists, rednecks, b-boys, even the President but don’t dare joke about Christianity or there goes much of your potential audience.
Sure, some bits work. The entire rodeo sequence almost, almost, shows what Borat could have been. There’s good stuff in the NYC street scenes, some of the hotel bits and other parts here and there. In fact I laughed at a lot of this but much the same way I laughed at Jackass or even some of the genuinely offensive Team America. (Parker & Stone are thanked in the end credits of Borat.) But it’s also annoying that four writers couldn’t figure out a way to maintain the fake documentary illusion. Partway through Borat loses his producer/cameraman (who eventually returns, a plot device copied from Spinal Tap) but the scene where Borat explains this is both handheld and has zooms, so who’s holding the camera? One moment he has no money and then he has some. Perhaps not a big deal and we really shouldn’t have expected more from people who thought blundering around an antique shop was a good idea.
Back to Python again. There’s a video interview with John Cleese where he says suppose you have a character appear. The man’s head uncontrollably twitches and he talks in partial gibberish (which of course Cleese enacted). Now this isn’t funny if it’s the milkman. But it is funny if it’s the Under-Secretary of Homeland Development. I think he’s completely right and it’s the problem I have with that famous photo of Benjamin Peret insulting a priest. Attack the institutions, the offices, the personae, the bad ideas but the people are still people and even if they don’t deserve respect they also don’t deserve humiliation or being forced to think they way I do.