Friday, November 3, 2006
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" arrives with the following disclaimer: "No reputations, public images or feelings were harmed in the filming of this production."
Welcome to the by turns corny and lethal humor of Borat Sagdiyev, the fictional Kazakh journalist who, since making his debut on Sacha Baron Cohen's HBO program, "Da Ali G Show," has made a rude specialty of barging into American subcultures and alternately offending or making buffoons of his hosts (mangling the English language all the way). Who can forget the time he led the patrons of a country-western bar in a rousing rendition of "Throw the Jew Down the Well"?
In addition to the hopelessly un-cool "Not!," "Jew" is a favorite Borat punch line, but Gypsies and Uzbeks aren't much luckier, as he haplessly makes a hash of American notions of patriotism, pluralism and political correctness. In the comedic tradition of Larry David, "Punk'd," "South Park," the late Andy Kaufman and Stephen Colbert, Borat pushes humor to its most discomfiting edges, eliciting howls and winces in equal measure. The result is a perfect combination of slapstick and satire, a Platonic ideal of high- and lowbrow that manages to appeal to our basest common denominators while brilliantly skewering racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and that peculiarly American affliction: we're-number-one-ism.
In "Cultural Learnings," Borat, played with seamless disingenuousness by Cohen himself, has come to America to make a feature-length documentary for the people of his home country (played by Romania). He embarks on his journey with a producer named Azamat (Ken Davitian), making a triumphant exit from his village in a tiny car drawn by a horse.
The team's tour of America begins in New York -- where Borat mistakes a hotel elevator for his room and later meets with a group of feminists ("Give me a smile, baby, why angry face?"). But soon Borat and Azamat are on their way to California ("Pearl Harbor is there," Borat explains. "So is Texas"), which entails a trip through the American South that resembles nothing less than Sherman's march as conceived by the writers and editors of the ironic newsweekly the Onion. (Cohen's American team shares a suitably snarky-burlesque pedigree: Director Larry Charles worked with Larry David on "Seinfeld," and producer Jay Roach directed the "Austin Powers" and "Meet the Parents" franchises.)
As Borat cuts his wide and occasionally vicious swath, no petard goes unhoisted, a spectacle that delivers squeals, howls or at least low-level chuckles nearly all the way through. (It's never clear just who's in on the joke, raising the same squirmy feelings one sometimes gets watching the fake interviews on "The Daily Show.") Unlike some television shows-turned-features, "Cultural Learnings" works as a film, with its final payoff every bit as outrageous and funny as its setup.
In Virginia, Borat earns cheers from a rodeo audience when he announces that Kazakhstan supports America's "war of terror." The applause is just as loud when he adds, "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!"
The carnage continues: Borat brings an African American prostitute to a dinner party on Secession Road in Birmingham; breaks hundreds of dollars worth of antiques at a shop in Dallas; and sends kids screaming away from the ice cream truck he's driving when a live bear roars out from the service window (presumably the bear wasn't harmed in the filming of the production).
While Borat barnstorms his way through the American heartland -- and, more to the point, its most cherished myths and assumptions -- his satiric rapier slips only rarely (the woman who helps him operate a toilet in Birmingham seems genuinely sweet). But for the most part, we're not laughing with but at Borat. When he does let his subjects hang themselves, they more than deserve the noose, such as a group of racist frat boys he gets drunk with in a camper and, earlier, a rodeo manager who, when Borat tells him that in Kazakhstan gays are jailed and hanged, cries, "That's what we're trying to get done here!" (Proving that he's nothing if not ecumenical in his choice of targets, Borat eventually visits a Pentecostal church, where he pretends to be saved and begins to speak in tongues.)
Lest newcomers think that "Cultural Learnings" is all subtle political swipes, the most hilarious moments are the broadest: Borat's filthy malapropisms, his obsession with prostitutes and bodily functions, and the film's centerpiece, an agonizingly long naked fight scene between Borat and Azamat that makes a sumo wrestling match look like Anna Pavlova performing "Swan Lake." Filmed up close and personal to reveal every hairy inch of the two men, the scene pays coarse and finally rapturous homage to the courage of doing comedy without a net. When the two men -- still nude, and one of them now brandishing a sex toy -- invade what looks like a real-life mortgage brokers' conference, the sequence levitates from being a mere stunt to a vehicle of sheer catharsis.
Why two naked men cavorting in a ballroom full of people should be so transcendent is a mystery for the ages. Suffice it to say that Cohen -- who wrote his Cambridge dissertation on the historic relationship between blacks and Jews in America -- is one of the few artists smart, gifted and brave enough to continually raise the physical and political stakes and clear them. And, as an outsider looking in at the most perverse, hypocritical and weirdly lovable contradictions of the country he calls "the U, S and A," he seems uniquely qualified to remind us that, when they're not completely appalling, American foibles are really pretty funny.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive, crude and sexual content, including graphic nudity, and profanity.