Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - 2006
Comedy / Spoof Documentary
Directed by Larry Charles
Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer based on a story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Todd Phillips
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev and Ken Davitian as Azamat Bagatov

Borat is a spoof documentary movie film which chronicles the adventures of Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh television presenter who has been sent by his country's government to the United States to learn about Western culture and how it can be applied to Kazakhstan's problems ("Economic, social and Jew"). The character was created by English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, best known for his phenomenally successful Ali G TV series (which spawned a heavily-promoted but commercially unsuccessful movie) in the early '00s. As with Ali G, Borat's schtick revolves around hoax interviews with unwitting subjects.

In the course of Borat's journey from New York to California, his interviewees include feminists, politicians, born-again Christians, Texan good old boys, Southern socialites, frat boys, shopkeepers and various other members of the public who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. (One of the film's strongest parts is the hilarious attempts at vox pop interviews on the NY streets and subway, provoking reactions to being talked to by a foreign-looking stranger ranging from expletive-laden hostility to blind panic.)

Borat's representation of a Kazakh citizen is wildly inaccurate (which is of course part of the joke) - he is a lanky, moustachioed Middle-Eastern-looking man in a battered suit, who greets male interviewees with kisses on the cheeks and lips and stumbles through interviews in strangulated, broken English with frequent comedic misunderstandings. His views are shown to be variously absurdly xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic and (most controversially in the eyes of some, including the film's distributors) anti-semitic. Alarmingly, his off colour comments frequently pass unchallenged or are even endorsed by some of the people he meets. (It seems that only Borat's jibes about disability universally provoke a sour reaction.)

I have to admit that I was sceptical when I first heard about this movie. My recollection of the Borat character from his original appearances as filler on Da Ali G Show was that he was more of an indulgence than a fully-developed character, with his variation on the trick interview technique (inappropriate behaviour excused by cultural misunderstandings followed up with unsubtle goading of the victim to reveal scandalous personal opinions) hinting at only a limited amount of repetition before it became stale.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that Baron Cohen and his writing partners had massively expanded the character's repertoire. The many (often very brief) spoof interviews are seamlessly mixed with hilarious scripted scenes, unexpected sight gags, and insights into Borat and his producer Azamat's absurd Kazakh worldview ("with a bottle of gypsy tears to protect me from AIDS..."). And thankfully there are no (or at least very few) merchandisable catchphrases.

Although there is clearly an element of staging and clever editing involved at all parts of the proceedings (the celebrity-based stunt that marks the end of the journey was entirely staged, I'm sorry to say), it's still difficult to come away unimpressed at the level of inventiveness that has gone into setting up the gags (for instance the dinner party scene in which Borat alternately charms and offends his hosts with a barrage of cringeworthy setpieces, before escalating the situation until their patience and manners are finally exhausted), and the sheer brass balls shown by the two stars performing outrageous acts in public where there would be no chance for a second take. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the pivotal fight scene towards the end of the movie, an episode of gleefully obscene slapstick that had the audience pissing themselves with laughter.

The only scene which doesn't quite deliver is one late in the film where Borat attends a fundamentalist Christian church service, and doesn't really do anything particularly amusing or outrageous. Although the point of this scene could simply be that there is nothing that any comedian could add to make the words and actions of these people (which we're told in captions include a congressman and a supreme court judge) seem any more ludicrous.

It's widely rumoured that such a large amount of material was shot for the film (many stunts were attempted which didn't come off entirely successfully) that a lot more of it will surface in future, either as a greatly extended DVD edition (as was done for This is Spinal Tap, which had a second disc with over an hour of extra footage) or even as a new TV series. Several scenes that were cut from the theatrical release have appeared on YouTube. In fact, there is such a large quantity of promotional material for this film online, I would strongly recommend not actively seeking it out before you see the film itself, unless you want to spoil several of the best parts.

Borat may not be the ultimate in film comedy that some of the reviews might suggest, but it's the funniest film I've seen in recent memory. The fast pace, consistently funny gags and use of shock tactics reminded me quite a bit of the South Park movie. The film isn't by any stretch a biting satire or a solid piece of drama, so don't go into it expecting anything but laughs. Not to say that this a bad thing, especially these days when most British films billed as comedies turn out to be bland rom-com or comedy-drama hybrids.

High five!

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