Revisiting ‘Borat’: Tired Collection of Catchphrases or Groundbreaking Comedy?
“Wildly funny. Its best jokes approach some savage, atavistic core of cultural taboo and make the viewer wonder: Is it really possible to laugh at this? But by the time you formulate that question, it’s too late: You’re already laughing.” – Dana Stevens, Slate, November 2, 2006.
“It’s screamingly, hysterically, laugh-through-the-next-joke, laugh-for-the-next-week funny …This is a film by an original and significant comic intelligence.” – Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, November 3, 2006.
“Jagshemash. My name-a Borat. I like you. I like sex. It’s nice.” – Borat Sagdiyev, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, 2006.
Do you remember when Borat came out? If you were a sentient being living in 2006 America, of course you do. There was no escaping it. If you were in high school like I was, you heard every line before you saw it. At your job, you endured Borat impressions for months afterward. If you were featured in the movie or you volunteered for an anti-defamation group, you probably filled out legal paperwork and wrote public condemnations for weeks. If you’re ever trying to determine if a friend has been replaced by a robot or alien, ask them to quote Borat. If they can’t, there you go.
Since you remember that, you may also remember that part of its popularity originally had to do with raves like the two quoted above, which, by the way, aren’t even the most gushing reviews out there. Metacritic reports that Borat remains the most critically acclaimed live-action comedy of the 21st century so far. That’s right. Not a mockumentary from Christopher Guest, or a gem from Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy or something from the Apatow production house, but Borat. (For what it’s worth, “dramedies,” which are usually thought of more as dramas, are categorized in a separate list, for which Alexander Payne’s Sideways takes the cake.)
Then there was this little anecdote that made the rounds at the time. Following an early screening of Borat for an audience that included luminaries like Garry Shandling, Judd Apatow, Larry David, and Simpsons writer George Meyer, Meyer turned to Apatow and said, “I feel like someone just played me Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time.”
The thing is, for all of this hyperbole, for all this acclaim, this isn’t the way you think about Borat today, right? What you remember about it is probably reduced to something akin to that third quote listed above: a series of catchphrases spoken in an unplaceable accent that you got sick of years ago. You know, “My wife!” or “Very nice. How much?” or “Sexytime” or “High-five!” or “Great success!” or whatever. Only nine years out, and Borat went from being a newly crowned member of the comedy canon to an apparent pariah, almost exclusively referred to and used as a punchline. What happened?
It seems that Borat became a victim of overexposure, defined by its worst fans, the types who quoted those lines sans context for years. It became really easy to make fun of those people, but it also started to color my impression of the movie itself, a movie that I remember liking when I first saw it. And yeah, sure, I was 16, but those critics that flipped out back then certainly weren’t.
So all this begs another, better question: do you remember Borat? Not the impressions, but the film itself. When was the last time you watched the whole thing? For all the fun we make of it now, I can’t remember the last time I talked to someone who had actually seen it recently. I myself hadn’t seen it since 2007, so in the interest of giving this misremembered icon a fair shake, I sat down for a rewatch.
I had a few questions going into it: 1) Considering I’m so sick of all those quotes, would the movie just come off as crazy annoying now? 2) Since Borat came out, comedians “playing dumb” in mockumentaries and interviews has become far more common, so will the movie’s approach still seem as fresh? 3) With about a decade of cultural shift behind us since its release, will Borat’s satire still scan, or will its jokes come across as bland and offensive? Let me dive in and tell you what I found.
First off, to get it out of the way, no, Borat doesn’t spend the entire movie saying “My wife!” (In fact, he rarely mentions his wife, and she dies off-screen relatively early on in the film.) To its credit, few of those notorious lines are spoken outside the first half-hour or so, if that, and after the first couple scenes I sort of forgot all that pettiness I harbored against those quotes. So if there was any lingering myth that it was the movie itself rather than terrible fans that perpetuated those catchphrases, consider it debunked.
Getting into the meat of it, though, Borat’s pretty much what I expected it to be. It’s not the Greatest Comedy of All Time, nor is it some piece of irritating, racist trash. It is, to my eyes (and maybe your disappointment), a fairly solid movie. If it were released today, it would likely be considered one of the better, more interesting comedies of the year. It’s essentially structured as a series of sketches connected by a framing device, so Borat, like all sketch comedies, is uneven. But despite the scenes that fall flat, plenty of them hold up, so it’s at least consistently entertaining, if not always laugh-out-loud funny.
Weirdly, for all the hubbub about how offensive and tasteless the film is when it was released, it feels surprisingly tame now. Part of that has to do with the fact that I knew what to expect going into it, but Sacha Baron Cohen makes Borat such an outlandish caricature — more a cartoon version of how ignorant Americans see the third world than anything else — that even at his worst, he just comes across as over-the-top and silly, like when he and his producer, Azamat, throw cash at a couple of cockroaches they mistake for shapeshifting Jewish B&B proprietors. Considering all the discussion over the last few years of what can and can’t be joked about, I was surprised to find the majority of Borat doesn’t feel particularly offensive, since it’s clear Cohen’s usually aiming at the right targets. This isn’t to say it’s perfect on this front: Indeed, whenever the movie does land in a bit of trouble, it tends to be when the jokes or scenes get lazy or ill-considered (more on that in a bit).
What makes it work at all though is Cohen’s performance, which is still remarkable for its unflappability. He seems game for anything, refusing to back down, even when confronted with some truly awful people. If the movie gets away with some stuff it probably shouldn’t, it’s because his confidence helps carry the day.
That being said, most of the funny stuff in Borat has little to do with the main character, and the movie works best when Cohen simply steps back to let the Americans he encounters indulge the worst sides of themselves. There’s the famous scene at a Virginia rodeo, of course, where Borat motivates the stadium audience to applaud a scorched-earth, genocidal policy for America’s “war of terror,” as he puts it. Then there’s Borat’s road trip with three frat guys, which is way, way more insane scene than I remembered. The three assholes are so openly, enthusiastically, even charismatically misogynistic and racist that it would come across as bad parody if it weren’t horrifyingly real.
A lot of the better moments, too, are found in smaller confrontations, like the way every man Borat greets with a kiss instantly turns aggressive and hostile, or how a car salesman nonchalantly estimates, at Borat’s request, just how fast a Hummer would have to go to fatally strike a group of Gypsies. This slier approach to the material, which underlines just how everyday ethical lapses are, makes for some of the film’s best comedy, precisely because of how quickly these casual conversations go off the rails.
When the film falters, it’s mostly when it’s self-consciously “provocative.” Your mileage may vary, but I’m generally pretty unreceptive to someone who thinks they are blowing my mind with how shocking they think they are. True, sometimes shock feels genuinely daring when it’s coupled with a clever purpose, but then there’s pointless shock, like a white middle-schooler yelling the N-word in a hotel lobby, which Borat does here in a short scene that’s meant to take a shot at casual racism and appropriation but mostly just glazes over it for a cheap laugh before moving on.
And those scenes where he just “moves on” are the movie’s main flaw. On one hand, those types of scenes may be lazy, but they’re often so short they can be shrugged off in the grand scheme of things. At the same time, the reason those scenes don’t tend to work is because they’re given no time to develop a satirical idea. Instead, they’re usually based around gently pissing off decent people without any real thrust behind it.
For instance, in an early, short scene I had entirely forgotten about, Borat sits down with a group of feminists and proceeds to tell them women have brains the size of squirrels. They get a bit irritated…and that’s pretty much it. To be sure, there are plenty of fun, goofy asides in the film, like Borat crashing a local news broadcast or destroying merchandise at an antique store. But scenes that seem like they’re about to engage with something interesting, like sexism or an interview with a politician, before ending 30 seconds later wind up as wasted opportunities. These scenes are centered on “I can’t believe he just said that” jokes, but those are only effective when they create tension, something we don’t get since we immediately cut to the next thing.
As overblown as all that contemporary Borat hype seems now, I still see why critics and audiences were so eager to exalt it then. Setting aside the shocking, attention-getting stuff, the tremendous scope of the film adds to the feeling that you’re in on this massive prank played on the entire nation. Everyone from politicians and storeowners to newscasters and celebrities are duped or exposed as Borat and Azamat tear across the country, and sometimes that can feel exciting, like watching someone pull off a heist.
But that was in 2006, when YouTube and social media were still in their infancy. The problem is that we’re in 2015, a time when we’re bombarded by videos of idiots saying appalling shit all the time. Whether you find it in Gawker headlines, on cable news or on your Twitter feed, the sort of shocking candor found in the film isn’t as much of a novelty now. Plus, back then, there wasn’t as much precedent for what Cohen was up to.
To be sure, it’s not that Borat was the first of its kind. Everyone from Andy Kaufman to Tom Green to the good people at Wonder Showzen and Cohen’s own Da Ali G Show (where Borat originated) were developing this style of comedy for decades. What matters is these comedians were generally exceptions to the rule, and notably, most were cult oddities, only fully appreciated years later. Borat was a megahit, and its status effectively blew the door open for this sort of thing. There was a market for this stuff now, and we were suddenly flooded with likeminded comics trolling unsuspecting people on major networks and YouTube channels, regardless of whether they took direct influence from the film or not.
The early years of The Colbert Report, before he grew too recognizable, saw Stephen Colbert coaxing boneheaded statements from politicians on a regular basis. Nathan for You ferociously mines everyday social interaction for laughs more effectively than Borat, even if Nathan Fielder’s disarmingly awkward persona is the antitheses of Cohen’s. Elsewhere, one of Kyle Mooney’s signature bits prior to SNL was interviewing fans and conventions-goers by incoherently stumbling through his questions, stimulating his interviewees’ conversational fight-or-flight response. (Mooney, it should be noted, later wrote for the first season of Nathan for You.)
Even the late-night warhorses got in on the action. Recently on Late Night, Conner O’Malley occasionally assumes a character, like an Entourage fan, and surveys strangers on the street (though a few of his “victims” are clearly in on the joke). Jimmy Kimmel Live, meanwhile, has its “Lie Witness News” series, in which someone asks pedestrians about their opinions on something made-up, weirdly causing them to lie so as not to appear uninformed. This is just a smattering of what’s been out there.
In other words, as ballsy as Borat seemed in 2006, it’s since been overshadowed by its own legacy. Plenty of it is still funny, but it doesn’t sting like it used to. Considering how committed and impressive Cohen’s performance is, it feels pretty selfish to say his movie doesn’t go far enough. But this isn’t back then, and I’m a spoiled, tiny, 2015 baby who’s seen it all and wants more, so my immediate rewatch reaction was one I didn’t expect: “enjoyable but underwhelming.” Borat may not feel like essential viewing anymore, but it also deserves better than its current reputation as a tired mass of catchphrases and accents, a reputation less based in fact than in an old grudge against co-worker impressionists. I don’t feel like I need to see it again right away, but I also have a newfound appreciation for what it did, so I’m glad I checked it out. And that’s something, right?
Chris Kopcow is a pop culture writer and comedy guy. Follow him on Twitter to see how that’s working out for him.