Borat Sagdiyev is the fourth most famous person from Kazakhstan, a television personality known for hosting such broadcasts as "The Running of the Jew" and for broken-English exclamations such as "Sexytime!"
Except that he's not. Thanks to movie publicity campaigns and an international incident or two, Borat's cover has been blown. Pretty much the whole world now recognizes him as British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, video prankster and star of HBO's "Da Ali G Show." Beginning Fri., Nov. 3, Cohen storms America's cinemas with Borat, his crude, lowbrow, big-screen comedy.
Except that it's not. True, Borat's astonishing raunchiness leaves you gasping with helpless laughter while wishing you could scour some of its gross-out images from your mind. Subtitled "Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," the film also backs into some surprisingly knotty themes. Touching on the nature of America's national character and what qualifies as "acceptable" humor, Borat's whole is greater than the sum of its naughty parts.
As you might expect from a movie in which the title character asks for a "pussy magnet" at a car dealership, Borat violates many, many comedic boundaries. The prologue at Borat's home village in Kazakhstan (actually Romania) caters to every conceivable stereotype of post-Soviet central Asia. Livestock wander in and out of squalid homes, mustachioed men dance in the streets and the only thriving industry appears to be prostitution. Old World prejudices and modern media obsessions, particularly sex and celebrity, make up the pillars of Borat's borderline-slanderous Kazakhstani portrait.
Borat embodies the worst of both worlds with a blithe lack of self-knowledge. He'll greet, say, the town rapist with a mock-disapproving "Naughty, naughty!" Compared with Cohen's other alter egos, gangsta-rapper Ali G and Austrian fashionista Bruno, Borat's open-heartedness makes him innately appealing -- at first. He's usually either gregarious, greeting men with unwanted kisses on both cheeks, or befuddled, as he contemplates why American women have the right to vote.
Teamed with hirsute, corpulent producer Azamat (Ken Davitian, virtually the only other "actor" in the film), Borat comes to America to learn how to pull Kazakhstan into the 21st century. After a few days in New York City, however, he catches sight of "Baywatch" on his hotel television and embarks on a cross-country trek to marry a movie star: "Prepare the wedding sack!"
Perhaps the most hoary cliché in all of contemporary comedy may be the accident-prone road movie to "find America." Borat makes the conceit fresh because, in a sense, it's not fake. The film's episodic events almost entirely involve real Americans with no reason to believe that Borat isn't exactly who he claims. Reportedly, Cohen doesn't even wash his crappy gray suit, so Borat smells like the real thing.
Cohen displays both improvisational genius and kamikaze courage when he, for instance, addresses a Roanoke, Va., rodeo with lines such as "We support your War of Terror! May George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!" The applause turns ugly when Borat sings an insulting anthem. How Cohen, director Larry Charles and the other filmmakers escaped repeated beatings and arrests could probably make up a whole movie in itself.
Borat's larger-than-life ignorance provides the butt of most of the film's humor, particularly his irrational attitudes toward Gypsies and Jews. At a bed and breakfast near Atlanta -- Atlanta! High-five! -- Borat recoils from the Jewish proprietors as if they're shape-shifting vampires. The uncomfortable aspect comes when unsuspecting citizens don't object to his outrageous remarks. When Borat walks into a Southern firearms store and asks, "What's the best gun to kill a Jew?" the shopkeeper talks up a model without comment.
Other people come closer to passing the Borat test, such as a Birmingham, Ala., family that struggles to maintain Southern hospitality, or the scary-intense evangelical meeting that welcomes him with open arms. At times, Borat carries the "Candid Camera" concept into outright cruelty, but arguably Cohen merely gives his interviewees/victims the rope with which they hang themselves.
Borat also makes us wonder exactly when outrageous bigotry, sexism and generally bad beliefs become funny. Most articles in the Borat publicity blitz point out that Cohen is Jewish, which seems to give Borat's exaggerated anti-Semitism a pass. But is it OK to laugh if you're not Jewish? It's like white people enjoying the deconstructed racist stereotypes on "Chappelle's Show." Perhaps some pin-headed audiences will chuckle with Borat instead of at him, but the context is everything. As long as the humor comes from the surprise at hearing the unspeakable actually spoken aloud, and not simply affirming a hateful belief, a comedy such as Borat steers clear of the destructive side of satire.
Not everything about Borat hangs together, despite its spicy jokes and meaty implications. When the film overtly references Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, it breaks character and feels self-consciously "Hollywood." The abrupt ending lacks the big payoff you'd hope for, as if Cohen and company were exhausted after pranking an entire nation.
But those are minor complaints compared with Borat's gloriously filthy achievements. If you're overdue for a wild, uproarious vacation from anemic, politically correct comedy, stamp your passport for Boratastan. Just leave your propriety, and your gag reflex, at the border.