After watching what is now the top-grossing film in the United States, "Borat: Cultural Learnings on America for Make Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," viewers seem to have one of two reactions. Either they are busy wiping the tears of laughter from their eyes or they are scratching their heads, wondering who, ultimately, the joke is on.
Such is the dilemma of Borat. It is decidedly unclear whether Sacha Baron Cohen, the film’s star and producer, intends simply to make us laugh or whether he intends to make us think-or both.
Borat’s travels from New York City through the American south smack of a Tocquevellian tradition of critiquing American culture through pointing out the anomalies, the caricatures of American bigots, and provoking the worst in his subject’s moral character. Yet Borat splices these biting criticisms of American ignorance with scenes that appeal to the mindless, sophomoric humor of fart jokes and nudity.
By the end of Borat, the viewer is ashamed to be an American, since the film essentially generalizes that all New Yorkers are aggressive, all Southerners bigots, and all American idols made of silicone. Is Borat’s an accurate assessment? Perhaps, in part. But does it reflect the majority of the population, and of its viewers? No.
Consider Garrison Keilor’s critique of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, a book by Bernard-Henri Levi about his experiences traveling across the United States:
"You meet Sharon Stone and John Kerry and a woman who once weighed 488 pounds and an obese couple carrying rifles, but there’s nobody here whom you recognize. In more than 300 pages, nobody tells a joke. Nobody does much work. Nobody sits and eats and enjoys their food. You’ve lived all your life in America, never attended a megachurch or a brothel, don’t own guns, are non-Amish, and it dawns on you that this is a book about the French."
This, too, is the problem of Borat. The lines between what is staged and what is real are blurred, to the point that it is unclear who is speaking their minds (which of course are filled with racism) and who is just playing along with the joke. The characters interviewed in Borat are coming to the revelation that they were duped into unwittingly providing the film with racist and bigoted soundbites under false premises. How much credence do we lend two drunken college students rambling about the benefits of slavery and the advantages minorities enjoy, anyway? Do they represent the moral failures of an entire nation? Do they represent you and me? Is the joke on them or is it on us, as Americans?
Satire fundamentally suggests a need for change. We caricature and lampoon that which we feel is in need of repair-in this case American bigotry. So what do we make of Borat? What lesson are we taught? After all, what in the film is real and what is fake? How do we correct the moral failures that Borat, the investigative journalist, has "uncovered"?
This is where the film fails. It teases its audience with the promise of satire, but ultimately leaves them with two naked men wrestling.
Damned if it isn’t funny, though.