Borat the movie: They botched the joke.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 2 2006 7:49 PM

Not Very Nice

The Borat movie: They botched the joke.

Can't stand to read another word about Borat? Feeling coerced by the crushing weight of the publicity-industrial complex and its you-must-laugh-or-die Borat blitz?

Believe me, I don't blame you, but stick with me a while—I'd like to offer a different if somewhat personal perspective: the Two Borat Theory.

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Call me a Borat snob. I was a huge fan of the brilliantly oblivious, appealingly clueless Kazakh "newsman" character when he appeared on segments of Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show on HBO. So, there's that Borat; let's call him Borat One.

But then there's the heavy-handed, frat-boy, butt-head Borat, the dumbed-down buffoon Borat of Borat the movie. The Jackass Borat. Let's call him Borat Two. Yes, I laughed, you'll laugh, it's stupid-funny. Hey, I don't have anything against stupid-funny. I've written columns in praise of stupid-funny films—Kingpin, Zoolander, even Dude, Where's My Car. I'm down with Harold and Kumar. So, it's no excess of Merchant/Ivoryism that feeds this feeling about Borat Two.

But to me the original Borat segments were more than stupid-funny; they were extremely smart-funny, occasionally even off-handedly profound, as the fake Kazakh newsman "personality" managed to tease out moments of appalling honesty from ordinary Americans with a light touch and brilliant comic timing that made it not about him, about Borat, being a clueless foreigner, but about us being clueless Americans. Not even clueless so much as naively blind to our own implicit smugness.

While Borat One gave you brilliant comic intelligence, Borat Two gives you ass-in-your-face (and I mean that literally) grossness from an aggressively, smugly dumb foreigner. Borat One had at least a touch of the sweetness of Andy Kaufman's Latka, his "Foreign Man," incarnation. Borat Two, alas, is more Yakov Smirnoff hammily exploiting his accent. They botched the joke.

What happened? If you ask me, it was the double-Larry whammy—the heavy hand of director Larry Charles (best known as a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasmdirector), the guy who managed to turn Bob Dylan's appealingly elusive persona into a leaden, ham-handed, phony-profound parody of itself in the awful Masked and Anonymous. I don't know how much Charles was personally responsible for turning Borat's subtle touch into lead-pipe gag-worthiness (in both senses of the word), but the parallel is suggestive.

And I'm not sure how much that other Larry, Larry David, has influenced the new cruder take on anti-Semitism in Borat Two, but it certainly seems to suffer from something very like it.

To my mind, to an admitted Borat snob's mind, something has been lost. Lost in transition. Lost in turning Borat from the blissfully ignorant naif on HBO who teases out genuinely disturbing elements in American culture, into the slow-witted, ham-handed moron in a film whose main purpose seems to be to look down its nose at America with a Hollywood sneer.

Just to give you an example of the difference, let's consider the most controversial element in the almost unanimously adulatory prerelease press campaign: the treatment of anti-Semitism (always comedy gold) in the Original Borat and in Borat the movie. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had expressed concern about the movie's treatment of the subject.