Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Borat The Meaningless

This Friday, the hyped-to-the-rafters Sacha Baron Cohen comedy Borat finally comes to American theaters, albeit to fewer American theaters than it was originally supposed to. Pundits have been wringing their hands over why the movie "isn't tracking well," especially since Cohen-as-Borat has been in any every major newspaper and magazine repeatedly over the last two months. (Possible answer: As with Snakes On A Plane, "the Borat experience" has played out too much in the media instead of on the screen, such that potential audiences may feel like they've already seen Borat even though they haven't. Also, while the trailer's hilarious, the TV commercials aren't.)
Anyway, I'm not here to write about why Borat is underperforming before it even opens. I'm here to tell you what Borat is, and what–despite the fervent wishes of too many critics–it is not. What it is is funny. Pain-in-the-sides-from-laughing-so-hard funny. Cohen's way of distilling his character's inappropriateness to charmingly shocking lines like "she has the asshole of a seven-year-old boy" well, that's a kind of genius. And the Candid Camera-style prankery goes so over the top that it sets a new standard for daring.

What Borat is not is pointedly satirical. Listen hard enough to people who love the movie and they'll have you believing that Borat's journey through the American south exposes the racism and misogyny that bubbles just below the surface; and as someone who's lived in the south all my life–and has known more than a few racists–I can tell you that Borat doesn't really get it. In a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, Cohen is quoted as being personally shocked by the scene where he walks into a gun store in character, asks what the best weapon is for killing a Jew, and gets an answer. But when I saw that scene, all I could think was that if a camera crew and a funny-looking guy with a thick accent walked into my store and started asking me questions, I'd be so confused that I'd say just about anything. And if you cut away at just the right time, as Borat frequently does, you can make any situation look worse than it might've been. (For one thing, I'm not entirely convinced that the gun seller knew what he was being asked, any more than he'd know what it meant if Borat had asked him, "Ahomosayswhat?")

But since Cohen won't appear out of character now–he's like a magician safeguarding his tricks–it's hard to know what's really real in Borat. There have been a lot of articles about the ordinary citizens who appear in the movie, most of whom are annoyed not only at the way they were exploited, but that no one's had the common courtesy to give them a little "thanks for being a good sport, we'll send you a DVD" call. And they're really not happy at how clueless they've been made to look, since a lot of them actually realized something odd was going on, but didn't know quite what to do about it because they were being paid for their time. A few of them would've looked bad regardless, like the rodeo dude who goes along eagerly with Borat's anti-gay remarks, and the RV full of drunken frat guys who run down minorities and women with undisguised malice. By and large though, what Borat proves is that southerners are unfailingly polite, and will put up with a lot more boorishness than they should, even if it makes them look guilty by association.

Perhaps that's an insight in and of itself. But it's not the one that so many people seem to be claiming on behalf of Borat. If the movie really wanted to make a point about bigotry, Borat would have to pepper its inadvertent subjects with follow-up questions, to make sure they're really saying what they've sort-of been caught saying. But that wouldn't be as funny, and Borat, to its credit, prizes comedy over truth. So let's not underrate the former in a rush to overrate the latter.

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