Sometimes, a comedy comes along that, though appearing to be base and silly, is so incisive with its satire, so revealing about both its audience and its targets, that it elevates itself above mere belly laughs and pratfalls to the realm of comedic genius. This is not one of those films. This film has entirely too many bared testicles to be one of those films. Borat, in which comedian Sacha Baron Cohen takes on his Kazakhstan hick persona and travels across America, has been critically lauded for satirizing not Kazakhstan, but rather America itself. It’s been described as an exercise in character comedy that uses low-brow humor and sight gags to subtly mock grand issues such as nationalism and intolerance, but that’s not really the case at all. Instead, Cohen just falls down in antique shops a lot and wrestles a fat man.
Ostensibly , Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a documentary commissioned by the Kazakhstani government to bring the life lessons of the West back to an impoverished nation, but of course it isn’t. The film is shot mainly on hidden camera, in order to best capture the reactions of Americans when lanky Kazaks in moustaches try to kiss them. But instead of illuminating prejudice and intolerance through confrontation and the encouragement of a seemingly willing participant, Borat mainly complains about Jews quietly in a corner, then rushes along to humiliate someone by handing them a bag of feces. There are moments, precious moments, where the whole point of the film becomes clear, where Borat's feigned male chauvinism brings out almost violent sexism in a group of drunken frat boys, or when his wide-eyed, child-like love of American culture inspires a bizarre rant against terrorists and homosexuals from a guy in a rodeo. But most of the time, the film remains one snorted rail of wasabi and a firecracker in the genitals away from an episode of Jackass. That's not to say that there aren't funny moments in the film, like when Cohen accuses a woman at a yard sale of being a gypsy, or the scenes set in Kazakhstan that frame the film and provide its narrative impetus. But the elements that could raise this film above particularly raunchy Candid Camera outtakes are only present fleetingly, and their brief appearances only serves to make the rest of the film seem even emptier, more meaningless. And without meaning, the laughs are as hollow and meaningless as the nationalistic values they're meant to skewer.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to like in the film, on a superficial level. The scripted segments, which introduce the film in a brilliant parody of Cold War propaganda films and are peppered throughout, mesh perfectly with the improvised bits, in which Borat travels across American and confronts various unsuspecting victims with his bizarre mix of childlike innocence and virulent homophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism. Cohen completely immerses himself in the character, an astounding feat that could herald the coming of a comic genius on par with Peter Sellers, complete with an innate sense of physical comedy and cultural satire. Of course, all of this is meaningless if there's nothing surrounding it for it to play off of. As it stands, there's too much buffoonery, and not enough meat to sustain the picture, enormous blubber wrestling aside. Director Larry Charles handles the scripted scenes well, merging them seamlessly with the rest of the movie while exploiting their comic potential with strong editing, but while the film has plenty of laughs, it lacks weight behind its punches, turning into a filmic slap fight instead of a knock out.