First, it should be noted that Borat begs to be seen in theaters – it functions at its best as a shared social experience. About a week after its initial, limited New York release shows were still sold out all over town, as they had been all week (and this was on a weeknight mind you.) We had to do a bit of theater-hopping before we found a showing with available tickets, but even then we had to buy them two hours in advance. Forty-five minutes before every showtime at the Village East, long ticketholder lines stretched down Second Ave. and around Twelfth Street – Borat is a cultural happening!
During the previews, members of the audience repeatedly called for Borat, as though his creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, were anxiously waiting behind the screen to make his entrance. As the opening credits finally started to roll, applause erupted as though he had.
The Borat segments of Da Ali G Show, Cohen’s HBO series that had its origins on English television, were always the cleverest. Just the sound of Borat’s voice is enough to start an audience giggling – college kids have been doing impressions at parties for years ("Niiiice"). When that accent is complemented by masterfully crafted broken English (see the film’s subtitle), precise comedic instincts and a frank expression of prejudicial inclinations, the result is so hilarious that it's easy to overlook the potentially offensive content.
The film disguises itself as a documentary, following ersatz Kazakhstani telejournalist Borat Sagdiyev as he interviews Americans for the ostensible purpose of, well, accumulating cultural learnings for make benefit his audience back-home. He decides to leave New York, where they are scheduled to do their filming, and travel to Los Angeles (by car and not by plane, just in case the Jews "should...repeat their attack of 9/11") so he can meet, and marry, Pamela Anderson. On the way he creates an American road movie unlike any you could've even imagined.
Whereas Borat’s bigotry is consistently conspicuous, his American interlocutors’ is generally not. Americans nowadays are more surreptitious with their prejudices than they were in the past (George Allen aside) -- the film’s success is in coaxing them out. Much of the humor though, such as the already famous nude wrestling scene between Borat and his producer, is not political; many scenes are played merely for hilarity’s sake.
But much of the film’s humor derives from Borat’s blunt racism (and sexism), not in virtue of itself necessarily but because of the responses it elicits. While anti-defamation leagues have criticized the film for its nonchalant chauvinism, it’s the heart of the film’s satirical commentary. Borat is not just funny, it's intelligent. When Borat asks a Southern gun dealer what the best gun for killing Jews is, he gets not one but two straightforward recommendations. Similarly, when he asks a car salesman how fast an SUV would need to be moving in order to kill a group of gypsies, he is given an honest answer: about forty miles an hour. He is even able to rouse a stadium’s worth of rodeo spectators to enthusiastically applaud the prayer, “may George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq.” The film borders on the terrifying, but not because of Borat – he’s obviously kidding, but the man at the rodeo who suggests that lynching homosexuals is something “we’re trying to get done in this country”, or the drunken fratboys who advocate a return to slavery, are not.
While it’s possible, as Anthony Lane worries, that the film may be misunderstood or misappropriated asatircally by denser audiences, that only further validates the film’s display of American culture as forever entrenched in racism, whether blatant or slightly hidden below the surface. After all, when Borat mistakes an Oliver Hardy impersonator in Hollywood for an Adolph Hitler impersonator, it is not so much due to his own anti-Semitism as it is that, based on his experiences hitherto, he expects it of Americans. That isn’t Cohen’s fault, it’s ours.