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November 17, 2006

Borat? Bor-ing - Richard D. North finds Sacha Baron Cohen a nasty piece of work: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - Larry Charles

Posted by Richard D. North

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Directed by Larry Charles
certificate 15, 2006

Borat? Bor-ing - I'd say. Granted the extraordinary praise that has been heaped on this weird confection, and my dissent, we may need to get our tickling sticks calibrated. I thought Shaun of the Dead (2004) was hysterical, and Iannucci's The Thick of It, and scattered bits of Gervais' Extras. I like smut and bad taste, though I never did get Benny Hill and Python didn't really do it for me. I don't think I ever looked at The Young Ones (the 1980s Rik Mayall scato-fest) for long enough to like or hate it, and this may be the key. Teenagers are easily shocked and Borat is a teenage movie. Did the adult reviewers fall for it for fear of being thought out of touch?

Borat is billed as the dirtiest and rudest thing you'll ever see. It isn't.

Happiness (1988) was far ruder. It had better cum-jokes even than Something About Mary (1988), a film which is far funnier than Borat. Shit-jokes are rarer, but the ones in Borat depended mostly on the idea that we'd be freaked out by shit-in-a-bag. (Borat's hostess - the butt of the butt stunt - behaved with a real grace which we can only admire, but not giggle at.) We didn't see the actual squidgy stuff, so punches were pulled. Even when Borat has a naked wrestling match with his producer (a figure reminiscent of Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks's Producers) penises were blanked-out. We saw more in Women In Love, the Merchant and Ivory lit-flick, back when bodies were less filmed.

There are some laughs in the movie, though not many. Some of Sacha Baron Cohen's stunts work for a moment, but most don't and none work for long. The big problem is to know who's being sent-up. Not SBC himself, for sure. Nor even Borat, really. He is cast, I think, as a scuzzy sort of hero.

It is, by the way, peculiar that the film's director Larry Charles should think this stuff funny. His own most famous association is with Larry David, of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The latter, especially, is a work of real merit, in which the comedy begins with mocking Larry David before moving out to cock a snook at Jewishness and Hollywoodness, all with vigour and conviction, some affection, and on fair terms.

Are we supposed to think that Kazakhstan (whence Borat hails, and works as a TV journalist) is funny? It is posited as having a Pamplona style "Running of the Jews" and if I was running the real place I would recommend Mr BC to stay well away for fear of finding out how horrid my jails could be. But it might be we are supposed to be amused that someone (us?) could imagine Kazakhstan to be a nasty dump. So it might be Western stereotypes we are supposed to mock. But even then, for this joke to be funny we would need Kazakhstan to turn out to be either really nice or really nasty, but actually surely for most of us it remains little more than a romantic question mark.

We are surely supposed to laugh at all the American nastiness or silliness which Borat has revealed to us as he crosses the US looking for Pamela Anderson. It would be of interest, by the way, to know whether he really did ambush Anderson in the way we see on film. If he did, I would (if I ran America) show him the inside of one of my less pleasant jails, and see how he likes the nude wrestling that goes on there.

Anyway, Borat in fact shows us how nice and patient Americans are; how polite to foreigners; how tolerant of absurdity and obscenity, if good-manners require it. He gets sworn at, sure: so would anyone wandering around any London tube train stealing kisses from strangers. But by and large, he can get them to say or do very little which is shocking. He gets a rodeo crowd to chant something like: "Kill all terrorists!", and I'll say amen to that. But in any case, he leads them up to it rather gently, by stages, and it isn't at all clear how much further they would have gone. I don't think we are in anything like Nuremburg territory, for all that SBC (bizarrely, you might think) may wish we were. He gets a drunken gaggle of male students out on a romp to say sexist things. Wow.

Elsewhere, I describe the tricks SBC used to soften up his targets when he was inhabiting that very peculiar non-negro bling merchant who was for a while very funny. They seem not to have changed, if newspaper accounts of his work in the US are right. The difficulty is that the tricks almost completely undo the chance that the shows, then or now, can be really funny. Once inexperienced people have been told that they are about to be filmed and that the interviewer is completely at sea in the interviewees' culture, it is very easy to lead them into well-prepared traps in which they are a bit patronising, or silly.

Indeed, the supposed awfulness which interviewees show to Borat is actually almost always the result of them trying to keep up with Borat's own awfulness and doing so out of politeness and only so far as politeness allows. One man does volunteer that he agrees with Borat that gays should be strung up (or some such) but I don't suppose that the man in question seriously believes what he said, or would act on it. It was just an ordinarily illiberal remark from a red-neck, and you don't have to be Borat to hear those from decent and nice people in any pub, anytime.

What about the poor Romanians who took SBC's shilling (and not much more, apparently) to be mocked as faux-Kazakhs in the opening sequences? This was truly weird. So far as I understand from a piece in the Financial Times (November 11/12, 2006) they were conned into seeming Neanderthal when they are merely poor. Unless they were included in the joke - that is, unless they played their parts with irony - then they were cruelly misused.

All in all, Sacha Baron Cohen seems to be a very nasty piece of work. Granted, he's got balls: someone might one day treat him as badly as he treats others, or even worse, and he must fear that. Meantime, I would be grateful if someone could explain the joke to me. It won't surprise me if he continues to gull not merely his victims, but audiences. How long before he is transmogrified into Sacha, Baron Cohen?

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

To read more by the Social Affairs Unit's authors about Borat, see Borat.

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If Borat encourages more people to turn on to Curb Your Enthusiasm it will have done its work...

Posted by: cheryl at November 20, 2006 12:19 PM
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