Foreigners are funny. Try as we might, it’s hard not to laugh at linguistic struggles and cultural misunderstandings. Why else would anyone shell out hard-earned cash to watch Jackie Chan, Rowan Atkinson and Ahnuld star in films with paper-thin plots that are forgotten before the credits roll?
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, the creative geniuses behind “Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” make use of our helpless hilarity in the face of otherness to give a giant one-fingered salute to the arbiters of political correctness. Based on the wildly popular “Da Ali G Show,” the film centers around one of Baron Cohen’s most beloved alter egos, Borat Sagdiev, and his adventures in America.
As the movie opens, Borat, an ebullient Kazakh reporter, has been commissioned by his nation’s government to venture to the glorious “U.S. and A.” to gain insight into American culture. After a brief introduction to his backward, benighted hometown (replete with yaks kept as pets and horse-drawn cars), we are transported to an even more peculiar land, full of outrageous people and practices — America.
After arriving in New York, Borat discovers “Baywatch” and embarks on an impromptu journey to California in search of “sexy time” with everyone’s favorite PETA spokesperson, Pamela Anderson. Over the course of the ensuing 84-minute movie, Borat and his one-man film crew — the beady-eyed, fat cat Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) — take us on a road trip that is full of Americana at its unabashed weirdest. From Civil War fanatics to gay-bashing rodeo enthusiasts and road-tripping frat boys who bemoan the end of slavery, it’s hard to believe that the people that Borat encounters inhabit a modern, progressive nation. Indeed, in a way, the Americans in the movie are every bit as absurd and caricaturish as the village rapist, Borat’s prostitute sister and the other ostensibly unrealistic and derisible Kazakhs.
The character of Borat has already drawn criticism from real-life Kazakh groups, who decry him as a bigoted misrepresentation. A man drinking from a toilet or shopping for a gun to kill Jews with cannot be seen as culturally neutral humor. Fans of Baron Cohen’s work have countered such claims by contending that “Borat” is not an easy vehicle for making fun of everyone who thinks, speaks and dresses outside the norm. Instead, like the comedian Jon Stewart, Borat serves as a reflection on American ignorance, a satirical treatment of our own closed-mindedness.
If “Da Ali G Show” is an analog of “The Daily Show,” however, “Borat” in feature-length form seems more like “The Colbert Report.” Sure, it’s hilarious, delivering persistent laugh-out-loud one-liners, but the wit and subtlety that have garnered Baron Cohen such a vast cult following seem to be lacking here. Instead of making a statement, or even avoiding the disappointingly predictable scenes of Borat trying to introduce himself to strangers in Manhattan, the film rests on its laurels. Charles and Baron Cohen know that people find Borat uproarious, but like Colbert, they are content to preach to the choir instead of taking advantage of an opportunity to progress.
Structured episodically, the film rarely takes the time to flesh out any of Borat’s interactions. We see the setup of each joke and watch Borat deliver the punch line, but the camera doesn’t grant us access to the best part — the aftermath. What has made Baron Cohen so immensely popular is his ability to stay in character, to force awkwardness and humor by refusing to jettison the front of earnest cultural misunderstanding. On the big screen, however, Charles cuts out these moments of understated comic brilliance and replaces them with funny but unremarkable filler that would be more at home in “Jackass: The Movie” than a satiric cultural critique.
Actually, there is a pervasive sense in “Borat” that Baron Cohen and Charles, both clearly capable and witty social commentators, avoided making creative and substantive decisions about the underlying nature of the film. In part, the film is a showcase for Baron Cohen’s cleverness and comedic skill, and in part it is an accessible (if offensive), audience-friendly throwaway. Ultimately, the film takes no chances (if you don’t count some surprising forays into innovative scenes of nude male wrestling). Instead, it doggedly pursues a safe and contrived route in making us laugh at those old comfortable cultural misinterpretations that really are very funny, and making us feel that we, unlike the Civil War buffs who just don’t get it, are insiders.