Lowdown: An over-hyped version of Jackass with some little wise insight on human nature thrown in between.
"You just got to see Borat". That's all you can here lately from people you just bump into with whom you are not familiar enough to hold a proper conversation. And I got to admit it, I like the Borat bits from the Ali G show, and this is definitely the type of film where the inferior presentation at the cinema doesn't matter that much but being around a large crowd of people does support the laughter. So off we went.
In case you just came from Venus or Mars, Borat follows the adventures of Sacha Ali Baron G Cohen Bruno (aka Borat), a patriot Kazakhstani reporter - who also just happens to be a racist, chauvinist and an anti-Semite - as he is sent from his poor village in Kazakhstan to do a documentary on the USA. While there he quickly falls in love with Pamela Anderson, which then sets him on a road voyage through southern USA to California in order to meet his love. In between, we get to laugh a lot. We really get to laugh here; this is not your ordinary comedy, this is a laugh pump.
Laughs, however, can be sorted according to three categories. The first is where Borat says something that really shocks the system of any person brought up with something close to normal Western values, such as "this is my sister, the number one prostitute in Kazakhstan" (insert proud smile). Most of the anti-Semite jokes fall under this category.
The second laugh type is when Borat performs some Jackass like stupid tricks, such as chasing a chicken let loose on a New York subway train, or runaround in the nude - in public.
I refer to these two laughter types as cheap laughs, since there's nothing wise about them: anyone with enough guts to do some nasty stuff to himself and to others can achieve those laughs; there is no real creative thinking with them. These two types are quite abundant in the film. Sometimes you even get a mix of the two types together, as when Borat says and does stupid things. I actually got an extra laugh from his Kazakhstani speeches, which are actually in Hebrew; some times they are properly subtitled, sometimes they are not, but most of the time they are just gibberish.
It's the third laugh type that really makes the film what it is: the type where Borat meets genuine people who have no idea they are taking part in a comedy - people who really think Borat is a reporter from Kazakhstan - where, through his eccentric Kazakhstan like behavior, Borat makes them say or do things they would normally not do in public. To make it clear: they expose an aspect of themselves they would normally hide. There are several good examples for such laughs in the film, but not as many as you would think given all the hype the film has been receiving: a rodeo crowd exposing their real thoughts on Muslims and Arabs, a group of youths that long for slavery to make a return, and an evangelistic church crowd behaving like a bunch of lunatics from another planet are the best examples I can give. Sure, Borat meets many others and tries to get them to slip: some people at a dinner party and a group of feminists to name two - but most of the laughter there comes from Borat rather than the people he meets; it's mostly laughs of the first type.
But when it works it works, and Borat provides some smart and careful insight about the nature of humans (albeit not particularly encouraging insight). Many I've talked to dismiss it as "obviously, he's dealing with dumb Americans", but I think this is exactly the attitude Borat is criticizing when he makes us cringe as we laugh at others making a fool of themselves with their big mouths; those that dismiss Americans are just as foolish as the people Borat exposes for idiots on the screen.
There's more to the film than this. Baron Cohen's overall criticism at the American/Western way of life, portrayed throughout the film with many examples - the chase after Pamela Anderson vs. the film's conclusion, Borat getting an iPod while his jealous neighbor gets an iPod Mini - has a lot of wise insight in it. The fact the entire film is shot "reality TV" style as we follow Borat's adventures, when we know perfectly well Borat is not real, is yet another way for Baron Cohen to tell us something about ourselves and the shaky foundations of our comfort zones. But those elaborate insight are very much eclipsed by the laughter moments; as you get out of the film, it's hard to think of those in the face of all the rest.
Alas, I felt like there are not enough good and insightful moments to the film. There is, however, too much cheap slapstick, a lot of which in pretty bad taste and usually at the expense of innocent others (including Pamela Anderson) - enough to counter the wiser insight and ruin the ratio of good material to bad one. I have to say I was also a bit disappointed with some of the better parts already shown on air in the "Ali G in da USA" TV show.
Worst scene: Yes, since I've mentioned the better scenes already, I'll mention the worst one here. Basically, it involves Borat's head being buried in a naked fat man's ass. Yes, you read it right. The scene is a part of a relatively long wrestling in the nude match between the two.
Overall: There is a lot of good stuff in this film, but not enough to outweigh the bad. 3 stars, but you are guaranteed to laugh a lot.