At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as an important movie because of its popularity (as well as the length of that subtitle). Not that anything is wrong with being popular, it’s just tempting in hindsight to attribute the movie’s success more to controversy, rather than the movie being as funny as it is.
What originated as an afterthought to Cohen’s more popular character at the time, Ali G, “Borat” as a character found huge success on the big screen as an eccentric reporter who acts in character around real people. Most of what makes Borat funny is the give and take between Cohen and his real-time American costars, who think he really is an offensive man from Kazakhstan (much to that country’s disdain).
In 2006, it was still unpopular to satire perceived greatness of America (Newsroom wouldn’t upend this accepted belief for several years). Yet Borat struck a chord with audiences on both sides of the political spectrum for how accessible its jokes were without polarizing one side. Then again, you don’t have to be either conservative or liberal to think stuffing Pamela Anderson in a wedding sack is funny.
And that’s perhaps because the embarrassment of Americans on the street aspect of the film is joined by some more neutral observations of blue-collar folk. The fact that these people are sometimes polite to a fault when dealing with foreigners says just as much about America as what they get offended by.
Cohen himself does some of his best work here, and just off the success of his character in one of Will Farrell’s best films, Talladega Nights. His performance and commitment to his persona is obviously impressive, but that’s not even mentioning the rapid-fire wit he brings to the movie, even during some of the staged scenes.
Because of this, I find it nearly impossible to peg the movie’s genius on any one thing. The jokes are hilarious, but in the least impressive way. Cohen is a smarter actor here than I think he gets credit for, but that might only be a result of how dumb everything is around him.
Without much of a plot to bring into the discussion, that just leaves the concept itself to decide whether or not Borat truly is one of the most essential comedies of the new millennium. Based on that criteria, I hesitate to make that assumption, especially considering how lackluster Cohen’s followups have been since. While it’s unfair to judge Borat on any of his other films, it’s still helpful to hold them up as proof that Borat isn’t quite the masterpiece we thought it would be ten years ago.
I won’t be catching Brothers Grimsby (or just Grimsby) this weekend, but we’ll no doubt cover the movie in this week’s podcast. Since The Dictator, I’ve all but given up on Cohen’s comedy, despite the fact that the man is one of the smartest comedians out there if you’re not judging this by his work alone.
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8 thoughts on “Retronalysis: Sacha Baron Cohen is the Only Great Thing About ‘Borat’”
lol I completely agree, but I think Sacha Baron Cohen is a pretty horrendous actor and his humor isn’t my type.
(Note: I’m not sure if my language (as metered as I’m trying to make it) is acceptable for your site. I have described some of the scenes with more details than you seem to have done.)
I read your article. Thank you. That inspired me to rewatch the film. The thing is that the film was good. It made me laugh and smile. I’ve seen it more than a few times. The initial shock of any of the stunts has long since worn off. When he defecates near the sidewalk, I just see it as being cute more than crude. The entire theme of the movie carries through. The theme of a foreigner whose ways are nearly incompatible with those in our country. If the subtext of the movie was actually to take on how America really is, I could see that more now (with distance from my first viewings and with other analyses of films and other media since then). That we find Borat offensive while we have so many offensive attitudes and offensive attributes in our own culture is the wink this film provides. Funny how Borat was only concerned that the rubber fist in his “anoos” was from a gay man, which isn’t far off from our own brand of homophobia. Those kinds of insights is what makes this film better than it seems on the surface.
Your title makes the assertion that Cohen is the only great thing about Borat. So far I am disagreeing. There is a plot, even: They go on a cross-country road trip (a common film plot) to get to California to see Pamela Anderson; additionally, the main plot is that they’re filming a documentary for their home country. I can see why that’s confusing because the main point of the film, on the surface, is that Borat goes around and causes trouble and shocks people. You might notice, though, that the “shocks” are usually short clips that are used as vignettes. If they are in a longer scene, I’d argue that those are the weaker parts of the film. The best parts of the film are those that tackle what Americans are really like or that focus on character growth. The main point of the film, to me, is about exploring people: Borat, as well as Americans.
On Cohen himself, I’d say he did a great job. If we’re comparing his work to other works (a practice I’m not going to say I’m a fan of), I’d consider Talladega Nights and also the Madagascar series. (I haven’t seen the other movies you’ve mentioned.) Maybe it’s not your style, but I really like his voice work in Madagascar. I’m actually not the greatest fan of him in Talladega Nights. And to be fair, probably not a great movie or great performance in Ali G Inda House. You could say that this shows he must not be a great actor. Instead I say that not all roles can be great. When he has a role that he can excel at, he does. I’ve seen movies with supposedly great actors that were not less bad because of their involvement. I don’t think we need to compare unrelated works to a good job in a single piece of art that we are enjoying.
On ratings… Rating is fun, but how does one compare a movie to another, being that every film that gets a B should be comparable in their grades? If the comparisons are only among similar types of films, let’s say to the Jackass series and Bad Grandpa, this movie would definitely be getting an A. (Not an A+, because it would be lacking in enough stunts, with not much harm done to Borat.) But I’m not sure that’s the right genre anyway. Isn’t this more of an adventure movie? Or a blend with pseudo-cinéma vérité. I’m not trying to say that it’s that unique or special, but it’s not a simple film, either.
Well, there ya go. Comments. 🙂
Some great arguments here. We agree on plenty, except that most of your praises for Borat I would attribute solely to Cohen’s acting. That’s not a bad thing, which is why the film is graded well above average. I just think it’s something to remember when we reflect on Cohen’s filmography, which is really the purpose of Retronalysis.
That said, my rating system is a little more unique than I think it appears. Like you mention, I take the genre into consideration, but I try to be more thoughtful than just saying, “Well, for a dumb action movie, it’s not bad.”
Instead, my rating system acknowledges the people who aren’t already fans of the genre. Here’s the simple breakdown:
A – This is a must-see, even if you don’t love the genre.
B – Hardcore fans of the genre will love it, and most people will like it.
C – Hardcore fans will probably like it. If you hate the genre, you’ll probably hate it.
D – Only a small number of hardcore fans will like it. Stay away, otherwise.
F – Stay away unless you just want to hate-watch it.
Do you use that logic in your reviews also? If so, then the meanings if the grading system has finally been solved!
Yup, that is my official grading system as of last year. I’ve avoided over-explaining it because I think it can be a distracting conversation. For many people, the grading is irrelevant and somewhat subjective. As in, you may think that “B” movies are your cup of tea, and “C” movies are pure rentals.
Great! Thanks, for posting that. I shouldn’t have assumed that you weren’t grading in that way. Looks like B is a great and appropriate rating. Also, I’m not familiar with “Retronalysis”, so apologies there if I am not getting the point of your article. hah… Sorry?
Well, the thing is, I watched the film after reading your article, with the thought in mind “Am I liking this solely because of ‘Borat’?” So, I noticed a lot of stuff that could be attributed to editing or directing. The themes that flow through the whole movie. The reactions of people and how they were used to accentuate the story (not to detract…mostly). Just like any good movie, it flows along, slowly at first (without a great focus) then picks up as it goes (where we can see more and more of what this movie was really about).
I guess the question here is: without Cohen, would the movie be as enjoyable; would the themes still prevail? Or is it the question of: if the performance of the main character was not very good would the whole movie fall apart? Well, those are some hard questions. Would any movie still be good without a good performance from the main character? I can’t see past that. But let’s say, isolating his performance as much as possible from the rest of the film, would those other parts still amount to something (not without him but just focusing on them)? I’d say that the rest of the film could possibly stand on it’s own (not literally, again). It’s charming or thought provoking, and I’m not talking about the Borat character.
Most films probably can’t stand on their own without a remarkable performance from the lead. Truly great films can. A decent example is the recent Creed, which is the first of the Rocky movies where Stallone didn’t write his own lines. Many are praising Creed as his best performance as a result, and I can get behind that argument.
But sometimes it’s the other way around, and an actor carries the film. Like I’ve said, this is common and sometimes unavoidable. I think too many people don’t recognize this flaw with Borat and give it what I believe is undeserved credit.
Anyway, Retronalysis is an editorial series I do every couple of weeks (it interchanges with No More Questions). I rewatch an older film featuring an actor who has a movie coming out soon (so Cohen in this case), then I do a “retro” review of the movie with a particular focus on the main actor. Past Retronalysis articles explored different themes and topics, but I’ve since consolidated that into my Unopinionated series.
In other words, my website is confusing.
Thanks for the explanation. I’m so in the dark that I didn’t realize this movie was new and that’s part of why I hadn’t seen it yet. Just from the image I saw (and that’s judging a book by it’s cover, I know) it looks silly but in a bad way. Anyways, I get it more now why this review focused on Cohen and put that question out there to answer. Shedding light on him instead of the hype.