“High five!” Against all odds, “Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” has swept the box office, earning the honor of being one of the few great movies to come from a TV character. Fans have known Borat for years as one of the alter egos of provocateur Sascha Baron Cohen, whose Borat segments on “Da Ali G Show” have pushed the envelope for unscripted humor and reckless political incorrectness. But unlike most of the TV characters that make the leap to a solo feature (think any “Saturday Night Live” movie or Cohen’s own abominable “Ali G Indahouse”) “Borat!” does everything right, keeping the shocks, wit and confrontation of the show while fully utilizing a movie budget and longer run time.
“Borat!” follows the misadventures of its titular character, a lanky, hairy, Kazakhi news reporter who “like make sexy time” as he travels with his rotund producer – an incredibly game Ken Davitian -documenting the American lifestyle for the benefit of his home country. Along the way he encounters a gay pride parade, tries to collect a jar of gypsy tears and ultimately travels cross-country in an ice cream truck to California to wed the presumed virginal Pamela Anderson, who Borat falls in love with after seeing an early morning “Baywatch” marathon.
The best part of Cohen’s frizzy-haired, spunky fish out of water act is its ability to turn on the average American, lulling people into a false sense of superiority in which their most embarrassing, and sometimes bizarre, views about people and race relations come to the fore. Segments like a scene in which Borat baits a group of feminists with sexist barbs are predictable and unfunny, but scenes like one where Borat opens a rodeo by saying “May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq” – which is greeted by cheers – are far more amusing and enlightening. Cohen and crew risked life and law for this undertaking, considering his rodeo performance started a mob – which isn’t seen in the film. And while it is hard not to feel sorry for some of their victims, the hilarity produced justifies the underhand tactics “Borat!” uses to embarrass people.
“Borat!” has raised some controversy for its rather extreme racial and sexual content, being edited down for some countries in its international release. In Borat’s own words:
“I hope you Americans see my movie, but please be warn that since it contain foul cursings, needless violence and a close-up of a man’s bishkek, it have been given most strict certificate in Kazakhstan, meaning no one under age of three will be able to see it.”
But while it is not a film that should be seen by everyone, its humor is always a few steps above a “Jackass” movie or the minstrel show some have charged it as. Cohen himself was a civil rights student in college, and once wrote a dissertation on Jews in the American Civil Rights Movement. It is simply unfortunate for Kazakhstan that their nation was picked as the home for Cohen’s character, especially because anyone who thinks that this film seriously reflects life in Kazakhstan, the world’s ninth largest nation, should be barred from seeing it. Borat is not simply a mockery of poor ex-Soviet satellites, but a mockery of how Americans perceive foreigners. Borat, who is known for his outrageous anti-Semitism, doesn’t speak Kazakh but rather a strange pidgin of Hebrew and Western Slavic expressions. The layers of irony involved in every aspect of Cohen’s daring act, plus his unnerving ability not to break character, make “Borat!” a rare comedic feat.
“Borat!” also impresses in its ability to thread a narrative out of its, at best, tangential escapades. Directed by Larry Charles – a creative force behind “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – brings a steady hand-camera and cinema verit