I know it's far too late to start weighing in on Borat, but I just realized that one name has been mysteriously absent from every editorial I've seen on the subject. Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen stars in the film; yes, he co-wrote it; yes, he created the character that set the movie in motion. But at the risk of sounding like a musty old auteurist, surely it means something that the picture was directed by Larry Charles?
So far, Charles has evaded the sort of critical scrutiny that other directors receive as a matter of course — he is, to borrow the title of one of his films, masked and anonymous. Virtually every major project he has been associated with has another figure attached to it who's more easily identified as its author: Cohen, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, even Bob Dylan. (I'm not sure how Masked & Anonymous fits into Charles' oeuvre, but it might be worth noting that Dylan, like Cohen, is Jewish — and that the film includes a scene where he sings "Dixie.")
I enjoyed Borat, but I thought it was a victim of its hype: So many people claimed it exposed the bigotry allegedly beating beneath the skin of Middle America that its near-complete failure to deliver on those terms was bound to hurt it. If this were simply a matter of clueless critics writing nonsense, I wouldn't hold it against the film, but Cohen and his colleagues are guilty, at the very least, of misdirection. Why else make a point of setting the dinner-party scene on Secession Drive, or the shop-wrecking scene in a store that carries Confederate memorabilia, if not to hint that you're revealing some terrible truth about Red America?
That said, there's a lot more to this movie than what Philip Weiss calls "Red-State blackface." In a much-quoted essay for Slate, Christopher Hitchens pointed out that "among the 'cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan' is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse," failing repeatedly to rise to Cohen's bait. For Hitchens, this was a sign that "the joke…may well be on the prankster." But who's to say that wasn't the joke? Maybe Borat isn't a particularly political film after all. Maybe it's the world's crudest comedy of manners.
Maybe, in other words, it's a typical Larry Charles production. Charles cut his teeth writing for Seinfeld and directing Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV shows that find most of their humor in the absurdities of everyday social conventions. Curb, in particular, feels like an inverted Borat. Both are semi-improvised comedies about the adventures of a socially awkward jackass. It's just that in Curb, the jackass is laid back, cynical, easily embarrassed, and intently aware of the informal social rules that surround him. In Borat, the jackass is frenetic, naive, impossible to embarrass, and completely oblivious to every social more.
Borat is a movie in which a man at a formal dinner can hand his hostess a bag of feces and be greeted, not with a knee to the groin, but with a friendly lesson on the use of indoor plumbing. I could imagine the same thing happening on Curb Your Enthusiasm, except that there it would be Larry David who has to give the lesson — and who then spends half an hour trying to arrange a set of circumstances that would let him give someone a sack of shit.