It’s been long enough since 2006, when Sacha Baron Cohen starred in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, that I had almost forgotten what a huge cultural phenomenon this movie was. Like Shrek and the Star Wars prequels, Borat has become so deeply entrenched in the internet’s meme language that you could be forgiven for wondering, do I even need to bother with the original?
My verdict after a rewatch is that this is a very hit-or-miss movie, with several scenes that just feel mean with no relief. But the other scenes that hit are really delightful. Cohen is a masterful improviser, creating awkward situations and leaning into the silence of his stunned subjects. My favorites: The joke teacher, the driving instructor, and the all-American rodeo (ft. a fake national anthem for Kazakhstan that boasts about the relative quality of its potassium).
Cohen, who was raised Jewish, also leans hard into satirical antisemitism; in 2006, I understood that he was making fun of ignorant and hateful people who stereotype Jews the way Borat does, and would have assumed that’s how everyone felt.
Today, though … it’s more complicated. Racial and religious animosity have ratcheted up so much that watching Borat is not as much of a comedic escape as it once was. Regardless of the author’s intent, suspecting that some small percentage of the audience earnestly loved his character’s shtick is an awful, parasitic feeling.