Clownish slapstick trumps sharp satire in Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen is anything but a fool. He just plays one in “Borat.”

Unfortunately, his anti-Semitic character is not a useful fool — that is, one who wittingly or unwittingly exposes a society’s foibles and fissures. So the movie is just a pileup of cheap laughs rather than a pungent satire, and only an intermittently entertaining pileup at that.

I realize I’m erring by slamming “Borat” as a missed opportunity for biting social commentary. Cohen’s goal is obviously mainstream success, and he recognizes that satire doesn’t sell the millions of tickets that slapstick and crudity do.

Borat Sagdiyev is a Kazakh television reporter and one of the fictional creations Cohen portrays on his popular “Da Ali G Show” on HBO. The wafer-thin conceit of “Borat” is that the lanky, mustachioed journalist is visiting America to shoot a travelogue-style documentary for viewers back home.

He is the innocent abroad, the naïve fellow unschooled in a foreign and ostensibly more sophisticated culture. While his antics are intended to be amusing, the real laughs derive from the response he provokes in people taken in by the ruse.

Borat starts his journey on the East Coast, but spends remarkably little time in New York City. Perhaps the city’s diversity translates into less prejudice, or maybe too many residents recognize the character and can’t be tricked. But it’s still surprising that the fearless Cohen couldn’t — or wouldn’t — find more comic opportunities in the home of America’s largest Jewish population.

So Borat heads south, where his ignorant yet straight-faced putdowns — of Jews, women, homosexuals and Roma (or Gypsies, as Borat calls them) — are intended to lull the ordinary people he encounters into revealing their true colors. Outside of a band of drunk South Carolina frat boys who give Borat a lift in their RV, it doesn’t work as often as you might expect.

Instead, the film’s humor largely derives from watching how far people will bend to excuse and accommodate inappropriate behavior before they snap. Cohen is making fun of social mores and accepted etiquette in these crass sequences, but no one will mistake “Borat” for a comedy of manners.

Contrary to some of the advance word — such as an overly serious New York Times story after “Borat” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival — the film neither critiques anti-Semitism nor challenges moviegoers’ anti-Jewish leanings or complacency.

Frankly, “Borat” isn’t deep enough or thoughtful enough to warrant a lot of analysis.

It’s not edgy enough to offend Jewish viewers, and it’s not smart enough to make non-Jewish audiences think.

If Cohen really wanted to breach a taboo, if he really wanted to push people’s buttons and make them laugh and gasp in one breath, he would have used the “k” word. But 40 years after Lenny Bruce shocked nightclub audiences, Cohen won’t get near it.

The anticipated box-office success of “Borat” could embolden Cohen to go beyond lowest-common-denominator entertainment. But he’s such an iconoclast that it’s a tough call whether a hit or a flop is more likely to prod him into taking a genuine risk.

“Borat” provides the merest hint of Cohen’s intelligence and courage. For too many moviegoers, that will be more than enough.

“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” opens everywhere Nov. 3.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.