In making his transition from the anarchic precincts of British TV’s Da Ali G Show to the more populist pastures of the big screen, something disturbing happened to Borat. He died. Performer Sacha Baron Cohen’s rendering of the clueless Kazakh journalist slowly began to implode under the pressures of imminent popularity. In his indulgent appearances on MTV Awards shows in Europe and the States (followed by what was on display in early Borat trailers), Cohen’s eyes looked perpetually glazed. The grin that once denoted Borat’s clueless amiability became frozen into a soulless rictus. The mock-journalistic, malaprop-addled sobriety with which Borat conducted himself lapsed into a tired shtick about his overbearing wife, his prostitute-sister, or what they do with Jews and gypsies back in his native Kazakhstan (depicted in Borat-world as a feudal, anti-Semitic backwater).
Due to overexposure, Cohen’s performance as Borat gradually became a parody within a parody — a danger sign for any comic persona (consider Peter Sellers latter-day turns as Clousseau for a classic cautionary example), tolling the beginning of the end of all that made Borat so exhilarating not so long ago. None of this is to say that Borat isn’t funny. Even on half-speed, it’s funnier and sharper than the vast majority of factory-assembled comedies out there. In spots, the movie can be hysterical. But, for the most part, its appeal is not unlike that of a veteran rock band putting on a greatest hits concert. Cohen, his co-writers Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer, and director Larry Charles revisit many of the tried-and-true set pieces from Borat’s TV incarnation in a bid to garner sure-thing laughs from an audience lured as much by the movie’s pre-release hype as by an adoration of Borat himself.
As for me, I belong to the second category; I’m a genuine fan, and do believe that Cohen is the most daring and brilliant comic performer to come along since Peter Sellers. Re-watching a Borat episode again and again, either on DVD or via the generous postings on Youtube, has picked up many a drab afternoon for me (Borat’s visit to a Southern plantation where he tries to enlighten his genteel, elderly hostess on what the words “Barbara” and “Bush” mean in the Kazakh language is a personal stand-out). So it was with a mixture of anticipation and mournfulness that I experienced Borat’s moment in the mainstream, and with a predictable shrug with which I left the screening.
Cohen and his team offer nothing new in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, except to graft onto their premise a narrative arc that muddies up what are meant to be purely spontaneous high-wire comic pranks. They maintain their premise: Borat, a Kazakh TV journalist, travels to the U.S.A. (“U.S. and A”) on assignment from his government to produce a series of lifestyle pieces about American life and culture. In the movie, Borat chances on a viewing of Baywatch, falls madly in love with Pamela Anderson and determines to travel cross-country to meet Anderson and carry her off as his bride. Accompanying Borat is his grotesquely obese producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), who’s new to the Borat universe and seems to have been installed for sake of the movie’s plot. Borat and Azamat quibble, fret, and bumble their way in an ice cream truck from New York City, down through the American South and across the plains towards Los Angeles.
Nearly everything on display here has already been done in cruder, fresher, far funnier form on Cohen’s Ali G Show. There are whole segments here rehashed from earlier TV forays: the bits in Borat’s village about his wife and sister, the Southern etiquette/banquet sequence, the interviews with right-wing politicos and left-wing feminists, the anthem-singing fiasco in front of a redneck audience, all these are retreads of scenarios attempted on Ali G, while a scene involving college boys road-partying in an RV was assayed with far greater bravado in one of Cohen’s Bruno — the flamboyant gay fashionista — segments.
The technique for getting laughs seems to have been simple: Don’t bother much with fresh scenarios and jokes. Instead, ratchet up recycled set-pieces in hopes that their amplified pitch will force a laugh from the audience. A case in point is an extended sequence in which Borat and Azamat wrestle nude down the corridors of a hotel and literally crash a well-heeled conference in one of the banquet rooms. The moment is more outrageous than funny, more noisy than inventive — and demonstrates the modus operandi for the movie at large. At other times, the recycling of a bit pays off because it manages to throw a new joke into the mix: I’m thinking of Borat’s disastrous, faux pas-ridden banquet in the company of some choice Southern citizens. After excusing himself to use the toilet, Borat re-appears moments later with a small surprise that offends the other guests into a state of dumb shock. That alone is worth the time it took to get us there.
Otherwise, Borat follows a series of up-and-down story beats mapped out by a committee of screenwriters (there are four credited), resulting in material that feels as contrived as any other plot-driven mediocrity out there. Even the potentially hilarious presence of a prostitute is infected with a feel-good aura totally out of place here. Will Borat get it together, reconcile with his estranged producer, and make it out to L.A.? Will he succeed in meeting the golden haired woman of his dreams? We find uninteresting and intrusive questions like these altering what could’ve been a blistering experiment in freeform comedy into a connect-the-dots hokum about a little Kazakh fish in a big American pond.
Directed by: Larry Charles
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Luenell, Pamela Anderson