The full name of Borat's new movie is the wonderfully awkward "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." After a glimpse of his home country his prostitute sister, rapist uncle ("No animals" while I'm gone, Borat admonishes) Borat, a Kazakh journalist, is off to visit America, where he preys on the hapless (and sometimes extremely angry) citizenry and chases the dream of marrying Pamela Anderson.
Of course his victims don't think they're being played. They think they're being nice. The character, with a bad mustache and frizzy hair, is a disguise of the comic Sacha Baron Cohen, and it has quickly overtaken the popularity of his once more famous personality, Ali G. Both originated on "Da Ali G Show" in Great Britain to mock the austerity and conventions of the pseudo-journalistic talk-show interview. Ali G has earned a great underground success here on HBO.
The movie "Borat," by comparison, raked in over $26 million at the box office (on fewer than 1,000 screens) during its opening weekend. It's a question of ready material, probably. While Ali G is contrived to dupe the famous, Borat wades into the mass what politicians like to call "average folks." Most of the time they are ready and willing to help the forlorn member of a backward nation.
Borat is a very brave fake man on the street. He tries to kiss other men hello on the New York City subway. He takes part in a Washington, D.C., gay pride parade (much friendlier than the people in New York, he notes). He sings the Kazakhstan national anthem to the tune of ours at a rodeo in Salem (somewhere around "the rockets' red glare" part is a boast of potassium exports). He invites a prostitute of color to a Southern dinner party (at a mansion off a real street called Secession Way).
Borat ostensibly sets up himself, the dumb foreigner, as the joke, allowing his cultural ambassadors to make themselves the butt. He catches people off-guard by turning their ethnocentric superiority against them. A feminist group meets with Borat to open his eyes to modernity, but responds to his faux chauvinism with a stiff lack of humor. When Borat asks a gun-store owner what's the best handgun for taking out a Jew, the man pulls out a 9 mm. The rodeo owner Borat interviews agrees on camera that the state-sponsored murder of homosexuals is something we should implement in the United States.
Borat might be a faker, but the people who fall for him aren't. Cohen and his con team swoop in for an interview with a stack of contracts the mark doesn't have the time or inclination to read. The result is usually a disaster for the interviewee and comedic gold for Borat. Cohen's character is one of the funniest mainstream satirists in pop culture today. (He would be the funniest if not for those DVD box sets of "The Simpsons.") He's leagues above the funny race-car driver, news anchor and other characters created by Will Ferrell. Ferrell, after seeing "Borat," is reputed to have lamented he'd never top it. That's likely true. "Borat" is outrageously funny, but it's made up of materials that are very familiar.
Strains of "Borat" can be found in the work of Michael Moore, Chris Elliot and Andy Kaufman, whose bad-joke-telling, vaguely Eastern European character "Foreign Man" (known as Latka Gravas on "Taxi") invites a deeper investigation of Borat's origins. The latter two were regular guests on David Letterman's NBC show "Late Night," and Letterman himself perfected the exasperatingly obtuse interviewer as well as the dopey guy on the street. (Borat in fact made a recent infamous appearance on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien.")
Cohen is not a deadpan extremist like Kaufman, nor is he as safe as Elliot or Letterman (nor as serious as Moore). Some of his comedy barges into sacred places. In an early scene in Kazakhstan, Borat covers the annual "Running of the Jews," an invented take on the famed Pamplona event. Here a monster lays a "Jew egg," which all the children are invited to crush. Some have questioned the motive in such gags or wondered if Cohen is trying to be another Lenny Bruce. Such questions may miss the point. Anti-Semitism and other issues skewered by Borat (chauvinism, animal cruelty) exist. That they do, some would argue, is absurd. Blowing them up to obscene proportions as Borat does makes them absurdly funny. It's satire by exaggeration.
A more appropriate criticism is not really the movie's fault. It's the most entertaining film released by the studios this year. (R) 82 min. ***** S