International lampoon's vacation
'Borat' is outrageously offensive. But, as cultural satire, it's also painfully hilarious.
"Borat" should be issued with a warning to all who are squeamish about explicit comedy involving body parts; body odors; racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes; bestiality; heterosexuality; homosexuality; pansexuality; Pamela Anderson, the Confederacy, rodeos, hip-hop, the Bush administration, naked wrestling, or the New York subway system.
Most of all, I would issue this warning: "Borat" is painfully funny.
The film is officially called "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," and it is the demented brainchild of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen, star of HBO's "Da Ali G Show." One of his alter egos for that show is Borat Sagdiyev, "Kazakhstan's sixth most famous man" and a journalist – the term is applied very loosely – for the state-run TV network.
If ever there was a comic character who deserved to be spun off into his own movie, it's Borat. With his Groucho-esque moustache and gray suit, he looks like a man who (at least in his own mind) is ready for prime time. The film, directed by "Seinfeld" veteran Larry Charles, is a mockumentary about Borat's trip to America – or as he calls it, "the US and A" – to learn about our cultural mores.
The odyssey begins in New York but rapidly gets sidetracked when Borat is mesmerized by the sight of Pamela Anderson while watching "Baywatch" in his motel. Vowing to meet and marry her, Borat and his cameraman-producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), who resembles a human hairball, make their way cross country in the only vehicle available to them, an ice-cream truck.
Cohen and his team of writers sketched this plot outline and then, essentially, winged it. Most of the movie is a series of unscripted encounters with unsuspecting people who were under the impression they were participating in Borat's documentary. Cohen is completely in character throughout, even when the situations become so hostile that one fears for his safety.
In one instance, Borat greets New Yorkers on the street and in the subways in the traditional Kazakh way – big, wet kisses – and comes close to being pummeled. In another sequence, he and Azamat, both flagrantly anti-Semitic, flee into the night when they discover they are bunking in the home of an elderly Jewish couple. (Cohen himself is Jewish.)
At a Virginia rodeo, after cheering the audience on with praises for America's "war of terror," Borat sings the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of "The Star- Spangled Banner" and is met with a wall of boos.
When he finally meets up with Pamela Anderson at a book signing, let's just say that the ensuing confrontation involves a burlap bag.
Cohen is a goofball satirist whose comedy draws on everything from "The Three Stooges" and "The Goon Show" to Peter Sellers and Monty Python. Yet there's never been anybody like him. He has what all great subversive comics have: An intuitive grasp of what makes audiences uncomfortable and how far they will go to laugh at themselves.
It would be reassuring (and accurate) to note that Cohen's comedy, untangled, is life-affirming and antiracist and pro-peace and all that good stuff. But why spoil the fun? I hate to sound blurby, but "Borat" is the funniest comedy I've seen since I don't know when. Grade: A
• Rated R for crude, sexual content including graphic nudity and language.
Sex/Nudity: 18 scenes, including frank talk about sex, graphic depiction of sexual activity, and full-frontal male nudity. Violence: 3 comic scenes. Profanity: 42 harsh profanities. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 4 scenes with drinking.