In search of comic relief from a tense election season, I took solace in a side-splitting movie last weekend: the infamous Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
The film has been attended by controversy and by starkly differing reviews. While many critics have found it immensely entertaining—John Podhoretz, writing in the Weekly Standard, called it "one of the four or five funniest movies ever made"—others (including even the president of Kazakhstan himself!) blasted it as juvenile, offensive, and, well, offensively juvenile.
Borat is, without question, quite literally a disgusting film. Its naked "wrestling" scene truly takes gross-out humor to its logical extreme. Its scatological pranks aim for cheap laughs.
And yet, at the same time, the film is both profoundly clever and outrageously hilarious. It's not without its faults but what movie is?
At root, Sacha Baron Cohen—the British comic genius behind the film—is nothing less than a modern-day Tocqueville, exploring Red State America through Kazakh and European eyes. In a scant 84 minutes, Borat manages to uncover many of the critical issues at play in the United States of 2006: race, the inner cities, religion, political correctness, guns, faith, and cultural relativism.
This last is perhaps the most curious. Much has been made of Borat's tendency to elicit the nastiest side of down-home Americans: allegedly racist, intolerant, anti-Semitic (more on this below), and the like. But in fact, what Borat exposes more than anything is our credulous indulgence of cultures with which we lack familiarity.
In other words, when elegant Southern ladies gently assist him in using an American toilet or when a rodeo organizer approves of his society's practice of imprisoning and/or killing gays, they are as guilty of an infantilizing cultural relativism as they are of enjoying defecation or expressing homophobia.
Borat slays other sacred cows along his journey as well, all in the service of providing a lens through which foreigners can understand the United States. (Of course, some unduly political interpretations of the movie's symbolism are badly overwrought, such as Newsweek's Howard Fineman's tortured reading of Borat's slapstick-style stumbling through a southern antique shop as a metaphor for President Bush's "bumbling" style of diplomacy -- if that's the case, why did Borat smash so much Confederate paraphernalia?)
Most prominent among the slain cattle is his exploration of anti-Semitism. Cohen—a traditionally observant, proudly Zionist Jew—has generated considerable commotion in his depiction of anti-Jewish attitudes.
But despite raising the hackles of the Anti Defamation League, plenty of critics have come to his defense, for reasons so oft-cited that I won't rehash them.
Still, for many other reasons, I feel compelled to speak out in support of Borat.
For one thing, no review that I've read (perhaps for obvious reasons) has commented on one of the more interesting aspects of the movie: whenever Borat speaks in subtitled "Kazakh," he's actually speaking Hebrew. As one of my friends observed after the movie, this is Cohen's subtle way of winking at Jewish members of the audience: "Don't worry, habibi, it's all just a joke! You like?"
Also unnoticed by any critic I've seen is that Borat's jealous next-door neighbor, whom he calls an "asshole," is apparently named Nursultan Nazarbayev, a moniker the fictional character shares with the real-life Kazakh president. Notwithstanding this insult, the movie has actually resulted in improved ties between Kazakhstan and the Israeli government.
Yet more than anything, Borat's boorish behavior toward the Children of Israel evokes, in a curious way, an earlier Tocqueville of Torah, wandering his way through the American West: Gene Wilder's Frisco Kid.
This 1979 film featured Avram Belinski, a Polish rabbi in search of his congregation in 19th century San Francisco. Hilarity ensues as the Frisco Kid encounters the Amish, Native Americans, and cowboy bandits, all of which intend him some kind of harm.
Rabbi Avram, an uproarious embodiment of the weak and downtrodden Jew who always manages to escape peril, succeeds in traversing the continent with the help of a trusty sidekick-cum-guardian played by Harrison Ford. During their journey, the two develop a friendship, and Ford's shady character is redeemed—along the way, exploding all kinds of anti-Semitic stereotypes (think: "Come here little chicken. I don't want to hurt you. I just want to make you kosher!").
So too, Cohen succeeds in exploiting Jewish themes and character traits in the service of humor that illuminates, but couldn't possibly encourage, Jew-hatred. The sheer implausibility of Borat's depiction of Jews (e.g. The Running of the Jew celebration in his hometown) highlights the irrationality of the type of anti-Semitism that endures even today, especially in the Muslim world.
All told, Cohen blends the best of the Tocquevillean and Wilderian traditions. While I have quibbles with what Borat did not include on his itinerary—why focus so much on the red states? Why not show up at an ANSWER or PETA rally?—I can't truly complain. After all, he's got to save something for the sequel, right?
So forget about politics, enjoy the weekend, and go see Borat, the highest-grossing movie in America. I promise: you'll be "very excite!"
Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.