Like everyone else in the world, I have been bombarded with Borat-mania for the past several weeks, and yesterday I finally saw the film. Let me say at the outset that I consider Sacha Baron Cohen to be one of the most brilliant, and certainly the most audacious, improvisational comedians I have ever seen--a four-way cross between Peter Sellers, Andy Kaufman, Johnny Knoxville, and Rabelais. Borat, a Slavic-accented barnyard Candide, is an astounding creation, and certain sequences in "Borat" left me breathless with laughter. I never thought anyone could exceed Mel Brooks' cinematic evisceration of anti-Semitism in "Springtime for Hitler," but darned if Baron Cohen didn't do it with "The Running of the Jew!"
And yet, at this time at least, I don't think I will ever want to see this movie again.
I have read the articles by David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer blasting "Borat," and I think they are completely off-base. Many of Baron Cohen's satirical targets may be conservative Southerners and Middle Westerners, but by no means all; he certainly makes the panel of feminists that Borat interviews look like humorless, single-minded cliches. And I need only point to "The Running of the Jew" to counter Krauthammer's charge that Baron Cohen ignores the existence of anti-Semitism in the Old World.
My complaint about the film is more fundamental: that too much of it consists of ambushing well-meaning people who are just trying to be nice to a foreigner asking their help in understanding American social customs. "Borat" made me cringe in much the same way that Richard Pryor's concert films made me cringe with the unpleasant, often obscene truth of life in America. But whereas Pryor spoke of American life and race relations as he observed them, Baron Cohen attempts to demonstrate how real Americans behave in unguarded moments. (Do I even need to cite the Heisenberg Principle here? Even Baron Cohen's most ardent admirers have to admit that Borat is an agent provocateur of grotesque proportions.) Some of the people Borat interviews, I must admit, are fairly and adroitly hoist by their own petards--the homophobic rodeo manager is an excellent case in point, as are the various surly New Yorkers Borat encounters. (Personal confession: I probably would have run away from Borat, just as the one guy did.) But was it really necessary at the formal dinner in Atlanta for Borat to regale the other guests with a bag of (putatively) his own feces, or pictures documenting his naked adolescent son's penile development? And while I hate being in the position of defending drunken frat boys, these particular frat boys were trying to be kind to Borat, offering him a lift and sharing their beer. And we all know that a drunken frat boy (or a drunken anybody else) will say things in private that will never, ever, translate to his behavior while sober and in the outside world.
In interviews, Baron Cohen has said that with Borat he tried to reveal not only behavior, but the hidden, bigoted attitudes most people carry with them. Fair enough, and for Baron Cohen/Borat to reveal such things is valuable when dealing with elected officials, political pundits, fundamentalist ministers and other self-styled "spokespersons" for American society. But to do that with unsuspecting private citizens, whom no one would have ever heard of were it not for Borat, is sabotage.
So I have the highest respect for the genius--and I do not think "genius" is too strong a word--of Sacha Baron Cohen. But, at least at this moment, I hope I never meet him. And I do NOT want to marvel at pictures of his son's penis.