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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2006 1 Jan
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
from Film Forum, 11/09/06

What's the difference between a good practical joke and a bad one?

From TV's Candid Camera in the '60s to Ashton Kutcher's present-day Punk'd, audiences have made it clear that they love to watch other people suffer from pranks and practical jokes. But a new film now playing to packed theaters takes this kind of ruse to a new level.

The British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who created the popular HBO character Ali G, has pulled the wool over a lot of eyes in the last several months, playing a journalist from Kazakhstan named Borat Sagdiyev. He's been getting the best of gullible targets, and he's come up with a wealth of material bound to make audiences laugh, flinch, and respond in outrage.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan displays many spectacularly funny pranks. No one who agreed to go on camera with Borat is safe … least of all Cohen himself, who shows that he will subject himself to more humiliation than anyone. This will come as no surprise to those who saw his no-holds-barred comedy in Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

But as Cohen's Borat tests his subjects with exhibitions of blatant racism, prejudice, sexism, and other offensive attitudes—not sincerely, but just as part of the act—the reactions become as interesting, and as troubling, as his charade. Borat exposes some alarming naiveté, cultural insensitivity (at best), and outright bigotry in those around him.

But is he too reckless? Too abrasive? Audiences will likely be taken aback by just how far Cohen is willing to go as one unsuspecting participant after another is, well, "punk'd" by his brave, bawdy shtick.

Critics are preoccupied with several complicated questions about the nature and ethics of satire: Is Cohen promoting misogyny, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and perversion? Or is he putting on this shocking show for our own good, in order to expose our tolerance for dehumanizing behavior?

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Some of the outrageous pranks—many involving real people not in on the joke—are, admittedly, funny. … But in satirizing American culture and politics, any wit is heavily outweighed by vulgarity, as Cohen and director Larry Charles go for shock laughs that range from the distasteful … to the visually gross."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "Sacha Baron Cohen is on a mission to simultaneously entertain and offend absolutely everyone on the planet. His primary method? Keep the cameras rolling in public settings while 'Borat' reduces unsuspecting targets to a state of apoplexy." He concludes, "Once or twice he's really funny. … The rest of Cohen's material gets buried by an avalanche of perverse, odious and repulsive satire."

Mainstream critics are almost unanimously impressed by these cultural leanings.