November 2, 2006

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Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (R)
Borat, intrepid Kazakhstan TV personality, comes to America to make friends, learn our ways and possibly marry Pamela Anderson in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Made in documentary-ish style, Borat features a great many real- life people who didn’t quite know they were going to be making an ass of themselves in an internationally released movie when, for example, they recommended a specific brand of firearm in response to Borat’s question about which gun was best to protect oneself from “a Jew.” (Answered the question, I might add, without missing a beat.) The result is a look of pure panic on the face of just about every person who interacts with Borat at some point during his travels. Not right away, but usually about halfway in to whatever interview or lesson or experience they’ve agreed to share with the neophyte to Western European culture. When Borat shows up at the dinner table with a baggie of his own poop, for example, the suspicious dinner party guest finally have their fears confirmed that they are, in fact, in the middle of the worst night of their lives.

Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen far more polished and practiced than in even his best moments on Da Ali G Show) doesn’t think of himself as a key figure in your average American’s anxiety attack. He’s here to learn and, as he says, make a movie-film, which if is not success, he will be execute.

He arrives on our shores with producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) strictly monitoring his shooting schedule and budget and his wife strictly curtailing his philandering with a threat that she will cut of his little Kazak if he cheats. So, when Borat first glimpses Pamela Anderson on an old episode of Baywatch he is besotted but knows he can not pursue her. Luckily, however, he finds out his wife is dead. After a quick “high five” with the bellhop who informs him of his widowerhood, Borat decides to turn what was meant to be a documentary shot mostly in New York into a cross-country trip at the end of which he hopes to be in California and married to Anderson. Will she say yes? Well, in a traditional Kazak wedding, the groom captures the bride in a sack, so perhaps her consent is not so important.

What, exactly, separates Borat’s stomach-crampingly funny pranks from the not-entirely-dissimilar stunts pulled by the Jackass crew? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s the way he uses the virulent anti-Semitism of his character to unmask anti-Semitism out of others. Perhaps it’s the fact that his uncouth, misogynistic, xenophobic manners are matched almost shock for shock with real things that real people say (possibly out of context, possibly teased out of them but still shockingly backward). Perhaps it’s the fact that his broken English allows him to get away with saying things like “We support your war of terror” to a crowd of rodeo fans and get big applause. Watching Borat, you are aware of the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel-like inherent unfairness of these situations and of their essential goofiness. You are even aware that during scenes as gasp-inducing as “the running of the Jew” not everybody may be laughing at the premise’s absurdity. (Though, really, if Borat can’t make anti-Semitism seem like the superstitious ravings of a Dark Ages ignoramus…)

And yet? Even when your ability to rationalize your giggles and snorts with some argument about “greater truths” fails you and you find yourself laughing for no good reason on other than that two very hairy men are wrestling, naked, and with no regard for what key body parts are doing, you don’t stop. Because even when you can’t convince yourself that Borat is just outward stupid hiding inward clever, you can easily convince yourself that Borat is really really funny. A-

Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic, retina-searing nudity and also “he did not just say that” language. Directed by Larry Charles and written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is an hour and 22 minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox. It will open in wide release on Nov. 3.

— Amy Diaz