I took my 12-year-old son to see Borat the other day. Was that ever a mistake.
I am referring, of course, to the movie, “Borat, Cultural Learnings for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the high grossing (literally and figuratively) satire by the controversial British actor, Sacha Baron Cohen, playing a Kazakh TV journalist.
It’s a movie that has somehow earned its early ticket sales despite being shown in only a small percentage of the nation’s theaters — here in the Princeton area it was showing only at the AMC 24 in Hamilton on the day that my other son, 14, announced that 1.) he and a group of his friends were seeing it as part of a classmate’s birthday celebration; and that 2.) he was counting on me to drive him there.
Given the length of the trek, from Roszel Road to downtown Princeton and then back to Hamilton Township, the choice was made to bring the 12-year-old along and then to stay for a movie of our own while the 14 and 15-year-olds had their fun. And given the other 23 choices at the 24-screen multiplex, Borat was our choice, as well.
If you have heard of the movie (now showing at just about every theater in town) and asked yourself if you would be grossed out by its content, then you probably would be. I was able to handle the “running of the Jews” in Borat’s native land; Borat’s defecation in front of Trump Tower; his masturbation at a Victoria’s Secret store; and Borat’s return to the dinner table in a genteel southern mansion, carrying with him the recently relieved excrement in a plastic bag. I handled all that.
But when Borat engages in a naked wrestling match with his grossly (there’s that word again) obese producer, the images become too much to bear. Could that be Borat’s face peering out from between the bulbous flabs of his opponent’s buttocks? I was spared the answer by my 12-year-old, who at that point put his hand up over my eyes to shield me from what was appearing on the screen. Maybe it was a mistake — bringing the old man to a movie like this.
And it was a mistake for both the 12 and the 14-year-old. Bringing the old man along meant participating in an extended discussion (that continues with this column) about what was humorous about Borat, what was offensive, and what we could all learn about it.
Despite its nonstop anti-Semitism, Borat should not be offensive to Jews. But it should be alarming, given the number of average Americans who fall in line with Cohen (himself an observant Jew), as he cleverly deploys his anti-Semitic rhetorical traps. As the New York Times reviewer noted: “Some people are definitely not in on the joke, though only because some people are too stupid and too racist to understand that the joke is on them.”
But Borat could be offensive to some college fraternity boys, who might wish they had blackballed the drunken fools who played into Cohen’s hand during a cross country ride in their RV. (The frat boys have since filed a suit against Cohen and the movie company, saying that they were plied with liquor and misled when they signed their release form to appear in the movie — a suit that gives some insight into the way the movie makers were able to get so many real people cast as fools.)
And Borat could also be offensive to that “glorious” nation, Kazakhstan, a sparsely populated region that became a Soviet Republic in 1936 and then gained its independence in 1991. While the Muslims are in the majority in Kazakhstan — 47 percent of the population followed by Russian Orthodox, 44 percent — the government apparently has bent over backward to avoid being seen part of the militant Islamic movement.
In fact, the constitution outlaws the fomenting of racial, political, or religious discord and stipulates that Kazakhstan is a secular state; thereby making the country the only Central Asian state that does not convey a special status to Islam. Not surprisingly the movie company did not even attempt to show Borat in Kazakhstan itself.
Maybe Muslims should be most offended by Cohen’s perverse satire. If the Borat character is intended to be a Muslim, then the movie paints an ugly picture of this age-old religious difference. At one point Borat and his producer spend a night at a bed & breakfast run by a quintessential elderly Jewish couple. The Kazakhs awake in the middle of the night and see cockroaches entering their rooms — it must be the Jews, transformed into their true being. Playing the Jew joke to the hilt, Borat throws dollar bills at the roaches, trying to divert their attention.
Surely all Muslims will protest such barbaric representations. Or will they? Last week conservative talk show host Glenn Beck aired a documentary showing footage from various state-run Muslim television shows, depicting the inculcation of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world, even targeting pre-school children. Do you know who Jews are, the announcer asks. Yes, says one child, her face in a frown, they are rats and pigs.
At the end of one of our Borat discussions, my 12-year-old becomes exasperated. Maybe, Dad, a funny movie is just a funny movie, he informs me. Maybe, but I would not assume that in the case of the calculating comic, Sacha Baron Cohen. Would that ever be a mistake.