Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, or Borat, as it’s come to be known, is the funniest movie I have ever seen. Caution me against publishing hyperbole as much as you would like, but with Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliant film today celebrating the 10th anniversary of its release, I have had a decade to think about it. And I am more confident in the assertion than ever. Borat is the funniest movie I have ever seen.
That status is insulated and protected by a few facts. First, there had never been anything quite like Borat before. Sure, American pop culture has been heavily familiar with recorded pranks since at least Candid Camera, which started as a radio show in 1947, and that ornery formula hit its peak a few years prior with Ashton Kutcher and MTV’s celebrity targeting Punk’d. And Cohen’s commitment to his interactively absurdist characters owes an undeniable debt to the un-winking anarchic hijinks of the late (??) Andy Kaufman. But to say Cohen’s ingenuity is established solely by his combining of these two simple formulas is reductive. To say his packaging of the combined approaches in recognizable cinematic narrative serves as the measure of innovation isn’t much more accurate.
What is truly exceptional about Borat, more than any comedy film of this or any era, is Cohen’s comedic aim, which was at once pointed and scattershot, the rare figurative sniper with an automatic assault weapon who, for 84 minutes (or more if you count the brilliant deleted scenes), doesn’t let one bullet fly astray. Where Cohen’s HBO TV show was arranged with the titular Ali G character creating situations wherein humor sparked from the often-esteemed guests’ reaction to the character’s stupidity and the tertiary Bruno allowed for an expose on the only-partially embedded homophobia within Western culture, both through the reaction of the interview subjects and in Cohen’s Harrison Bergeron-like ironic encapsulation of hetero-culture’s imaginatively and fearfully exaggerated perception of homosexual lifestyles, Borat was the character who allowed a pivot of all those comedy points. Borat, with his clumsy and foreign “otherness,” his well-meaning if naïve innocence and ignorance, and his personification of bigotry and prejudice that Americans liked to imagine existed chiefly in lesser nations, allowed for layered punchlines. Any given gag could result in a joke that jabbed at the fictional interviewer, the non-fictional interview subject, the unassuming consumer of the comedy, or the very real cultural conditions from which any of the three might manifest, leaving plenty of room for simple slapstick and goofiness.
It’s a concept tied up in the cultural court of appeals now. I’ve written before about the slippery of requiring comedy to punch up, and if it’s true that the fervent demand for such an assumed requirement has been fueled by the decades-long laziness of insult and shock comedy, it is also true that Borat, even if an exceptional event, should stand as the reason why comedic guidelines can never be hard-coded. Borat punched everybody in all directions, and he did so, at least in a measure of the final product, brilliantly.
Certainly, Borat had its fair share of progressive gems, even by the current standard—the faux reporter’s goading frat boys into speaking openly about their own rape culture attitudes, his passing of a literal bag of shit to the faded ghost of Southern aristocracy in his session with etiquette coaches, and tickling white Islamaphobia at a rodeo event. But the movie also proves a readiness to swing at those who would first stand in allegiance with those ambitions (Borat’s “Why angry face? Smile for me pussycat?”directed at a member of the Veteran Feminists of America, who he later dismisses as “this old man”) and those who would celebrate the overall effort (his inability to understand jokes in a comedic training session churning out meta-comedy gold). And it all works as even as the rest, with no fairly diagnosed missteps; Borat’s blackface bit is every bit as entertaining as his entitled drive to stalk and kidnap Pamela Anderson based solely on the most superficial motivation, the latter of which, without inspection beyond the final silent-film style chase gag, serves as the narrative’s central thread.
When Cohen accepted his surprising Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical, he concluded his speech by thanking the Americans who had “not sued him so far.” The actor was being only half facetious. The damage of brilliance is much more qualifiable than the brilliance itself and, as such, it would be dishonest to pretend that Cohen “got away with” his indiscriminate approach to comedy, which he hid behind a hurried delivery of consent forms delivered by a fake production company. After the film’s release, Cohen faced lawsuits from the frat brothers in the RV, the town of Glod, Romania (where the Kazakhstan scenes were filmed), Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, the driving instructor, and the aforementioned etiquette coaches.
And that’s just from the regression of the blast. Even before these cases hit courts, Todd Philipps (The Hangover), the original director of the film, walked away mid-production after receiving multiple death threats. Dharma Arthur, the Mississippi television producer who booked Borat for an afternoon news show, was actually fired after his sabotaging appearance. And it’s only fair to calculate the during-filming indiscretions; many of the film’s unwitting supporting stars were justifiably upset by being exposed to nude male photos and anti-semitic conversation.
A few months ago, I dismissed a now-exiled film writer’s suggestion that Blazing Saddles wouldn’t fly with modern audiences, because I perceive Mel Brooks’ masterpiece as a movie ahead of its time, one that, in its fearless bemused attitude toward historical racism, carried the seeds of the modern activist progressivism that that writer’s bold claim attempts to demonize. But, here’s where I set myself up for hypocrisy. I’d almost say that his statement holds true for Borat, filmed and released over two decades later. Maybe I don’t mean that Cohen’s breakthrough film would be ignored or poorly received in 2016; but the hashtag crowd would certainly expose the film to a more immediate and comprehensive dissection, think-piecing every aforementioned element—the exploitation of a poor village, the non-consenting exposure of pornographic content to women, the producers’ admitted targeting of poor regions with less cable access to position the proper targets—until there was nothing left to enjoy with virtual consensus except for the meme-ready bits (side note: please stop trying to make Borat one-liners memes; the film is way better than that).
And those dissectors wouldn’t be wrong. It’s hard to look at a compiled list of Borat’s victims without wincing. But if Blazing Saddles is a movie ahead of its time, Borat is one apathetic of its time. Borat wasn’t just willing to take aim at everyone indiscriminately—it was necessary for the film not to discriminate. And, now that it already exists, the question of the production’s morality and ethical responsibility might be a separate issue from the question of the film’s sanctity as a comedic and artistic artifact.
Because, measured as an artifact, Cohen’s willingness to make a punchline of anyone and anything manages to do what many comedic artists only hope to, but what few (particularly within the equal-opportunity-offenders brand) manage. After ten years of social progress we can look back on Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan from a position within a society that has, in countless ways, divided itself, seemingly irreparably, with political and moral division built upon mutual certainty, and observe a film about the folly of living in a multi-cultural world, coming together faster than we are cognitively and collectively equipped to handle, with only the assistance of flimsiest, conviction-less notions of cultural relativity, and laugh at ourselves for the futility of our best effort. It’s hard to do this thing, to work together in a constant compromise to build a better world for everyone, and sometimes, having those sort of conferences interrupted by a fat man wrestled by a knee-level swinging dick is exactly what we need to keep our own hopeless silliness in perspective.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox