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Today’s feature is Sacha Baron Cohen’s infamous shock-documentary, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Borat was directed by Larry Charles, who has also been behind the documentary-style comedies Religulous, Bruno, and The Dictator, and has also served as a producer on television shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Dilbert, The Tick, and Entourage.
Borat is based on a character originally created by Sacha Baron Cohen for Da Ali G Show, but the movie astoundingly has a total of 9 credited writers, including both story and screenplay credits for Cohen, Anthony Hines (Bruno), and Peter Baynham (I’m Alan Partridge), as well as a screenplay credit for Dan Mazer (Da Ali G Show) and a story credit for Todd Phillips (Old School, Road Trip, The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III).
The cinematography in Borat was provided by the duo of Anthony Hardwick (Bruno, Religulous, Entourage) and Luke Geissbuhler (Helvetica, A LEGO Brickumentary)
Borat in total had three primary editors: Craig Alpert (Pineapple Express, Funny People, Knocked Up), Peter Teschner (Horrible Bosses, Bride of Re-Animator, I Spy, Josie and the Pussycats), and James Thomas (The Muppets, Fanboys, Hot Tub Time Machine).
The music for Borat was provided by Sacha Baron Cohen’s brother, Erran, who has also provided the music for his other films The Dictator and Bruno.
The team of producers on Borat included co-writers Sacha Baron Cohen, Dan Mazer, and Peter Baynham, as well as Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) and Monica Levinson (The Watch, Bruno).
The cast of Borat is made up mostly of unaware non-actors, outside of Sacha Baron Cohen and Ken Davitian (The Artist, Meet the Spartans, Get Smart, Frogtown II). A couple of recognizable faces do pop up in non-acting roles as themselves, like Pamela Anderson and politician Alan Keyes.
Todd Phillips was initially slated to direct the film, but left after filming just one sequence (the rodeo) due to creative differences with the rest of the team. He did wind up with a story credit on the final product, however.
The release of Borat unsurprisingly met with an immense amount of controversy, with countless individuals speaking out against the depictions and representations in the movie, as well as a handful of lawsuits being filed against the production.
In spite of the controversy, the initial response to Borat from critics and audiences was generally positive, and it still holds a 91% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as a MetaCritic score of 89%. However, time hasn’t been particularly kind to the movie: the continuously recorded IMDb rating has sunk to 7.3, alongside the currently updated Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 79% and MetaCritic user score of 7.2.
Borat made well over $128 million in its initial domestic theatrical release, on top of $133 million internationally, despite a number of national bans. The initial production budget was $18 million (what the hell was that money spent on?), making the movie wildly profitable, especially for a documentary.
There is a certain unfocused quality to Borat. Who is the audience supposed to laugh at in this movie? Instead of punching up or punching down, it just seems to flail, swinging limbs confusedly in every direction and hitting whatever it happens to come into contact with. This idea of the ‘equal opportunity offender’ seemed to be particularly popular at the time, using the idea that making fun of everyone excused making fun of stigmatized and oppressed groups in even the most lazy and demeaning ways. For an example of that, just take a look at Carlos Mencia’s Mind of Mencia, which ran on Comedy Central for 3 years from 2005 to 2008, operating specifically on this mentality.
The moments of humor that are effective in Borat are pretty niche in their interest, having a specific focus on a combination embarrassment and schadenfreude. While this has gotten more popular over the years due to the correspondent segments on The Daily Show and the style of The Colbert Report, it still isn’t the sort of comedy that pops up a lot in blockbusters. This makes it all the more perplexing as to why it was so widely successful at the time. The best way to explain it is that the movie is satire gone wrong, and a lot of people were laughing at the ‘wrong things’. For instance, when Borat is referenced in popular culture, it is never done by playing on the humor of making common people look ridiculous for their hypocrisies and prejudices, but by mimicking the eccentricities of the character of Borat himself, like his bathing suit and his accent. Those aspects seem to me to be more of a means to an end in the movie, where the laughs are meant to be focused on the reactions of the people. Still, that doesn’t make these details ok, because they are still incredibly negative and shallow, but it is telling that those are the aspects of the film that people latched onto.
However, most of the humor throughout Borat is lazy and based on a ludicrous, concocted version of the nation of Kazakhstan: a lot of it seems to be based on massive misconceptions and general xenophobia towards people from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, making the movie not all that unlike the clueless conservative people it primarily aims to mock. Even the way the film is shot keeps the focus almost exclusively on the character of Borat, whereas Daily Show correspondent segments almost always stay trained on the target, with the character specifically being used to draw out reactions.
Borat definitely capitalizes off of domestic xenophobia and racism in the wake of 9/11 and the renewed American engagement in the Middle East, but it also punches hard at conservative and evangelical elements in the US, as I mentioned previously. It is also worth noting the amount of Russian and former Soviet influence on the style of pseudo-Kazakhstan, which provides kind of a double-whammy as far as ingrained negative bias from the perspective of western audiences.
It is worth pointing out that Cohen’s style of humor has seemingly rapidly decreased in popularity over time, with each of his Borat-esque films making less of an impact than the last. However, he has done some acting in a few acclaimed films in recent years, like 2012’s Les Miserables and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, and isn’t awful as a comic relief element in those dramas.
On the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator, one review blurb in particular stood out to me, from critic Matthew De Abaitua of Film4:
“Borat is the funniest film imaginable right now.”
I think that kind of captures the phenomenon of this movie: for better or worse (mostly worse), it is a product of a specific time. I think a lot of people rightfully look back on it negatively now, but that should tell us a lot about the movie-going masses of 2006 in comparison to today’s audience more than anything else.
Sacha Baron Cohen made the decision to retire the character of Borat not too long after the film’s release, which I think was the best move for everyone. His reasoning is that he couldn’t surprise people anymore due to the character’s popularity, but I think there’s much more to it than that: Borat as an entity doesn’t belong in the present day, and it rapidly became the sort of tone-deaf portrayal that it was theoretically trying to mock. On some level Cohen must have known that, and it had to have influenced his decision to set the character aside.
I think Borat is worth rewatching for a lot of people, particularly to understand where society was at the time for it to become such a hit. The movie is honestly unremarkable, and suffers from being horrifically unfocused and poorly paced. If there is anything positive to say about it, it is that Cohen is capable of disappearing into a role, and that the film manages to sporadically capture the elusive quality of schadenfreude. However, it gets very bogged down in focusing on Borat as a semi-human caricature, rather than on the people around him. It does provide a semi-coherent example of how satire can so easily drift astray, and become a negative force.