You will laugh at "Borat," you really will, but thelaughter will sometimes stick in your throat. This is partiallyintentional -- "Borat's" fiendish brand of subversive social commentarycomes with an ironclad shock-and-offend guarantee -- but partially not.
"Borat," or to give it its full title, "Borat: Cultural Learnings ofAmerica for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," is thebrainchild of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, a performer who istouched by a kind of genius so savage it makes you consider the verynature of comedy and what makes us laugh.
As was evident in his British-bred HBO television series "Da Ali GShow," Cohen has a gift for staying in character, for submerginghimself so deeply into the personas he creates you wonder if the manhimself could come up for air even if he wanted to.
First seen on the HBO show, Borat Sagdiyev is a fictional televisionjournalist from Kazakhstan, a real country portrayed here as such ahotbed of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and all-around inappropriatebehavior that a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman plaintively said: "Weunderstand that Borat is a kind of satire, but it is just a pity thatMr. Cohen chose Kazakhstan as the origin of his hero."
With his wide-eyed, pasted-on grin, thick mustache and loping GrouchoMarx gait, Borat is a profane innocent with a will of steel, as earnestas he is devious, someone who is so a product of his stridentlypolitically incorrect culture that his actions are intended make usquestion aspects of our own.
As conceived and written by Cohen and three other writers and directedby Larry Charles ("Seinfeld"), "Borat" begins in its hero's dilapidatedhometown of Kuczek (actually shot in Romania). There we meet hiscelebrated sister, "No. 4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan," and witnessone of the town's most revered customs, the Running of the Jew, in whichlocal kids chase an enormous papier-mache Hebrew through the streets ofthe city. And the fun is just beginning.
Most of "Borat" involves the man's journey to "the U.S. and A" with hisproducer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian). The trip begins in New YorkCity and ends, after Borat falls in love with Pamela Anderson via old"Baywatch" episodes, with a cross-country drive to California in adilapidated ice cream van.
Along the way Borat has various misadventures, as often as not involvingmasturbation and defecation, each episode intended to be more outrageousand potentially offensive than the last. (This is likely the first filmever with a "Feces provided by" credit.) Among the more memorableincidents are:
-- a speech at a Virginia rodeo where Borat tells the crowd, "We supportyour war of terror. May George Bush drink the blood of every man, womanand child in Iraq";
-- an encounter with a Southern bed-and-breakfast run by a Jewish couplewhere Borat insists that two roaches who invade his room are theshape-shifted owners and throws dollar bills at the bugs to mollifythem;
-- a jaw-dropping, completely nude bout of no-holds-barred wrestlingbetween Borat and his rotund producer that goes considerably beyondanything that can be seen on YouTube, or anywhere else.
Because the "Borat" crew shot the film's interviews as if Cohen reallywas a clueless Kazakh journalist, none of the people who appear in it(except for wrestling partner Davitian and an actress who plays aprostitute) are aware that they are talking to a guerrilla comedian, nota foreign newsman.
We don't laugh at all of this, but we laugh at more of it than wouldseem possible, even if our laughter makes us uncomfortable enough towonder why. For one of the unexpected things that seeing "Borat"underlines is that we don't only laugh because something strikes us asamusing. We laugh out of astonishment and disbelief, out ofembarrassment for what the people on screen are going through, andbecause we simply can't figure out any other way to respond. "Borat"takes advantage of all these, and more.
We also laugh at situations that don't sound remotely funny on the pagebecause of Cohen's powerful comic presence. This is a very smart guywith the innate likability all comedians have to have, and he is verydeft at what he does.
In addition to a taste for slapstick (watch for him negotiating his waydown the first escalator of his life), Cohen has a remarkable knack forimprovisational response -- he's dazzling at a garage sale he stumblesacross -- that serves him here just as it did when he was Ali G.
Again in the Ali G mode, Borat the reporter specializes in tweakingpeople in power and the blindly prejudicial. Looking especially poleaxedare a pair of pillars of the conservative Republican establishment,former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr and Alan Keyes. And a man at that Virginiarodeo is allowed to hang himself with his gleefully homophobic comments.
But because Cohen is intentionally provocative, willing to mock whoevercrosses his path, he ends up baiting the harmless and playing ordinarypeople for fools just because they are gullible and had the bad luck torun into him, and it's here that the laughter especially sticks in yourthroat. The car dealer who doesn't object when Borat makes anti-Gypsyremarks might not be a secret racist but simply someone who decided itwas a mug's game to get further involved with an obvious lunatic. Andthe Southern dining society that gets mercilessly humiliated seems tohave committed no sin worse than earnestness, credulity and hospitality.
With his corrosive brand of take-no-prisoners humor that scalds oncontact, Cohen is the most intentionally provocative comedian sinceLenny Bruce and the early days of Richard Pryor -- with a difference.For unlike those predecessors, there is a mean-spiritedness, a lurkingevery-man-for-himself coldness about his humor. The one kind of laughteryou won't find in "Borat" is laughter that acknowledges shared humanity.Instead, there is that pitiless staple of reality TV, watching othershumiliating themselves for our viewing pleasure.
Gifted and funny though he is, Cohen and his love of transgression arefinally very much of and about our time. For better or worse, we deserveeach other, and we might as well laugh.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times