It's fun to laugh at Muslims! (2007)

As the saying goes, analyzing comedy is like dissecting a frog. No one laughs and the frog dies. Well, let’s get out the scalpel and peel this one back anyway. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, has received rave reviews from film critics since its release, and last month won a Golden Globe. I figured I’d catch it before it hops from repertory theatres to the video stores.

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has played an unnamed Moldavan TV reporter for BBC's Comedy Nation, and an Albanian reporter called Kristo for the Comedy Channel. These were the building blocks for his character Borat Sagdiyev, an overenthusiastic broadcast journalist from Kazakhstan. On the Da Ali G Show, Borat’s shtick was to corral unsuspecting interview subjects, often fly-over state Americans, into absurdist exchanges that played up their homophobia, racism, or just plain ignorance. Thinking he’s a genuine Khazak reporter, Borat’s victims are initially eager to educate this exotic specimen. But as his questions become increasingly obnoxious and offensive, they begin to squirm.

The film opens with the gangly character in his hometown village, sucking face with a short blonde woman, his sister, whom he proudly describes as the "fourth best prostitute in all of Khazakstan." He tells us the Kazakh age of consent has been recently raised to the age of twelve. We witness the "Running of the Jew" – a fictional annual traditional festival in which the 300 bravest men of Kazakhstan chase large papier-mâché caricatures of Jews, while children throw rocks at the figures.

There have been plenty of comic cultural stereotypes in the past, from Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau to SCTV’s Mackenzie Brothers. But they weren’t so provocatively over-the-top that you’d find nothing recognizably human in them. Not Borat. Whether he’s masturbating in front of window display mannequins in New York, or happily carrying a bag of his own feces into a stuffy dinner party, he’s as hideously foreign as Ridley Scott’s

On CBC radio recently, two hosts conversing about film comedy mentioned the classic sixties comedy The Party, in which Sellers played a clumsy East Indian film extra. Agreeing that a remake wouldn’t be proper, the hosts deemed Seller’s dark-skinned klutz politically incorrect. If this accurately reflects the attitude of our oh-so-sensitive cultural czars, why all the critical hoopla for Sasha Cohen’s central European caricature?

The film’s location of Borat’s homeland in Kazakhstan, a part of the world most viewers knows squat about, ensures a wide screen for projecting any preconceived ideas about swarthy foreigners. I’m hardly the most PC person around, but I’m a bit uneasy with ethnic stereotypes based on geographic blind spots - especially when the production is a cross between a Hustler cartoon and a Jack Ass sketch.

When Borat returns to his village in Kazakhstan at the end of the film, he enthusiastically points out a new ritual that’s replaced the "Running of the Jew" — crucifying Christians. So what does that make Borat’s religious background? When asked in the film if he’s Muslim, Borat ambiguously replies that he "follows the hawk" – a reference to the Khazakh flag — yet the character looks a lot to me like a paint-by-numbers portrait of a Muslim. (Especially considering that Islam is the main faith of real-world Khazakstan.)

Sasha Cohen has inadvertantly crafted a humourous target that maps closely over the ethnic bullseye of the Plan for a New American Century. What if the character wasn’t a racist, misogynistic Muslim stand-in, but rather a fire-breathing Zionist caricature? How well would that have fared in Hollywood? I get that Borat’s appearance and accent pushes some terror-alert hot buttons in the American heartland, making for emotionally charged encounters. Yet I couldn’t get past the mean-spiritedness and manipulation of the exercise.

When Borat boards a bus full of frat boys, and joins in the speaking-in-tongues at a megachurch revival, the results aren’t so much funny as sobering. He also butchers the US national anthem at a rodeo, but not before getting the crowd — who look like figures from a Breughel painting — to cheer on George W. Bush’s ‘war of terror."

In the US, blue state viewers can laugh knowingly at the fun-house mirroring of the clueless Borat and their red state brethren. Yet the film goes nowhere Jon Stewart’s Daily Show colleagues haven’t already, with greater comedic skill. Cohen is more of an equal-opportunity misanthrope than a comic, giving Uncle Sam and Islam an equal beating. There’s lots of frantic action to keep the viewer from falling asleep, but like a lab frog, this production isn’t so lively after after a close inspection.

Geoff Olson