comedian Sacha Baron Cohen first broke through with his striking
concoction, Ali G, the British-born Pakistani nitwit with a bling-laden
canary-colored tracksuit and an And Capp-meets-Snoop Dogg vocabulary.
Ali G posed as an MTV news personality popular with "the yoof," enabling
him to ask smart people imbecilic questions. In one memorable interview
on his HBO show, our own ever-gracious Pat Buchanan gallantly (and
effectively) parried Ali's queries about why America hadn't found "any
BLTs in Iraq" and "Is it ever worth fighting a war over sandwiches?"
Ali G functioned as a brilliant satire on the neoconservative dogma that
any problems caused by mass immigration will automatically disappear due
to the magic of assimilation. While Ali G was, as promised, wholly
assimilated into English culture, it was not the England that gave us
Shakespeare and Locke, but the lowest common denominator Cool Britannia
of council estate chavs from the unworking class.
Eventually, every publicist in the English-speaking world was warned
about Ali G, so Baron Cohen has now been forced to fall back on his less
inspired secondary character, Borat, a grinning idiot of a TV reporter
from a phenomenally backward Kazakhstan. The Ministry of Information
sends the likeable lunkhead to report on the "U.S. and A." in the hit
mockumentary "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit
Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."
Baron Cohen, who wrote his thesis at Cambridge on Jewish participation
in the American civil rights movement, modeled Borat on an
unintentionally funny Russian he had met. His character started out
Moldovan and then became Albanian. There are plenty of scary Albanian
gangsters in Western Europe who might have taken active offense,
however, and Borat was relocated to far-off Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
In reality, Kazakhstan is an arid land of mostly Asian-looking people,
but in Baron Cohen's imagination, it's a travesty of old stereotypes
about Eastern Europe. The vulgar yet somehow innocent journalist's home
was filmed 2500 miles away in an impoverished Romanian village so that
Baron Cohen can indulge in traditional Ashkenazi anti-gentilism, the
clever townsman's disdain for the slower-witted peasant.
"Borat" is a 21st Century version of the Polish jokes that Borscht Belt
comedians like Henny Youngman once helped popularize. While Ali G was a
milestone in contemporary social satire, the anti-Slavic depiction of
Borat as the ultimate goyishe kop (he carries a chicken in his suitcase
and has no idea what a toilet is for) is old-fashioned and purposeless.
Still, the film is awfully funny in its intentionally lowbrow way. One
highlight is Borat warmly assuring a Virginia rodeo audience, "We
support your war of terror … And may George Bush drink the blood of
every man, woman and child in Iraq!"
What are almost as amusing are the rapturous critics' attempts to
explain why the film is Good for You. "The brilliance of 'Borat,'"
enthuses Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "is that its comedy is as
pitiless as its social satire, and as brainy." Huh?
"Borat," we are advised, is an Important Message Movie because it
portrays Kazakhs -- and Red State Americans -- as anti-Semites. I
suspect the critics (and Baron Cohen himself) are confusing "Kazakhs"
with "Cossacks," the Czar's irregular cavalry who were notorious
perpetrators of pogroms. Actually, the Cossacks began as Slavic serfs
who escaped to the steppe and adopted some of the horse-centered culture
of the Asiatic Kazakhs. Anti-Semitism, however, has not been a major
theme in Kazakh life.
Dargis assures us the semi-scripted movie
"will freeze your blood," exposing the hidden anti-Semitism of the
American South when Borat says something casually anti-Semitic to an
American, who fails to gasp with appropriate horror or to immediately
bundle the visitor off to a cultural sensitivity re-education camp. In
truth, Borat must have struck most Americans not in on the joke as
either a harmless boob or a demented lunatic. Humoring him would be the
sanest strategy for getting him to go away.
The Fox studio has marketed the low budget "Borat" superbly, with Baron
Cohen working harder to garner free publicity than any self-promoter
since Spike Lee's 1992 campaign for "Malcolm X." Fox's masterful hyping
of "Borat" is in ironic contrast to how in September the studio drowned
like an unwanted kitten the similarly crude and hilarious, but much
smarter and more politically daring, "Idiocracy," the sci-fi black
comedy about America's dysgenic future by the dazzling but diffident
Rated R for relentless filthiness.
to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after
the films have come and gone)