AMERICANS who know Borat love Borat. They love him more than the government of Kazakhstan officially hates him. At an advance MySpace screening of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" at the Century City mall, the crowd was punchy with anticipation and queue-fatigue. My friends reacted to the news that I was going like Grandpa Joe after Charlie's discovery of the Golden Ticket. Meanwhile, Kazakh officials, none of whom camped out for passes at the multiplex, have been up in arms over the outrageous buffoon who has usurped their national identity in the American media. Ironically, Kazakhstan has nothing to worry about as far as Borat is concerned. We're the ones who should be nervous.
For the uninitiated, Borat Sagdiyev is a gawky, overeager Kazakh TV reporter in a bad suit and worse mustache who travels across the United States doing light lifestyle pieces. Neither really Kazakh nor really real, he is the second-most-famous alter ego of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose most famous character, the pea-brained "gangsta" interviewer Ali G, has all but famoused himself into oblivion. (It's harder to book Boutros Boutros-Ghali or Newt Gingrich after their handlers finally catch on that a guy who asks Sam Donaldson "Does you remember when two journalists brought down the government over the scandal of 'Waterworld?' " can't be for real.)
Crass, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and outrageously impolitic, Borat's cluelessness about how other countries live, talk and think is rivaled only by his ability to sniff out grandiloquence and prejudice. Though they have traits in common -- notably their encyclopedic ignorance and obliviousness to social norms -- Borat is more likable than Ali G. For one thing, he would rather be liked than respected or admired, and his innocence makes his satire stealthy and powerful. If Ali G skewered all that is ridiculous about big media's obsession with "youth culture," from his own absurdly baroque persona to public figures so disconnected they can't spot a parody when it's right in their face, Borat goes after bigger game. The idea, ostensibly, is to extract lessons in sophistication from the most powerful country on Earth for export to a country most Americans couldn't locate on a map. But the outcome is somehow never quite what it should be. He ventures deep into unmediated America, spot-tests some big, surprisingly ambitious sociological theories, then wrestles a fat guy naked.
In the movie, which opens Nov. 3, Borat travels to New York with his producer, catches a rerun of "Baywatch" on TV, falls hopelessly in love with Pamela Anderson, and winds up making his way to California alone. I won't say much more about it other than it follows the basic format of the TV episodes, adds an emotional arc and offers a perspective on contemporary American society unlike any other. Directed by Larry Charles, the movie takes Borat on a series of cross-country adventures of the type that will be familiar to fans.
Over the last couple of seasons, regular viewers of "Da Ali G Show" have watched Borat plumb the mysteries of American house buying, dating, etiquette, wine tasting, campaigning, target shooting, country music singing and baseball, to name but a few. His encounters with average, small-town Americans, Southerners more often than not, are gems of fish-out-of-water buffoonery. Cohen has a gift for physical comedy and an inspired sense of the absurd and can turn something as mundane as accepting a stemmed wineglass into an absurdly protracted and awkward exchange.
Cohen has been compared to Peter Sellers, and like Sellers' most famously inept, terminally unaware characters, he knows how to shatter composure with frustration and lower defenses with absurdity. By pretending to exist entirely outside civilized discourse -- actually, by pretending never to have heard of it -- Borat slays inhibitions like cheap tequila. But what makes the awkward adventures of the fake Kazakh so startling is that though he may be fake, the nice people he so effortlessly prods into revealing their not-so-nice sides are real. As Borat travels through the country like a half-deranged, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, sex-obsessed Huell Howser, the picture that emerges is strange and strangely consistent on what defines the American national character.
Strangely taken in stride
BORAT'S interviews fall into roughly two categories. He seeks out self-consciously genteel, almost impossibly schematic "life coaches" of one kind or another -- people whose job it is to tell others how to date, tell jokes, find work, etc. -- and barrages them with questions, requests and opinions that, despite being completely outrageous, consistently fail to get a rise or a reaction stronger than "We don't do that here in America" or "That's not a customary thing to do in the U.S. at all." On the one hand, you have to admire his interviewees' tact and even keel. On the other, you can't believe that they don't react more strongly than they do.
He also hangs out with "normal people" who happily reveal their prejudices. Shopping for a house, in one TV episode, Borat asks a real estate agent about a windowless room with a metal door for his mentally disabled brother, whether he may bury his wife in the yard if she dies, and whether black people will move into the neighborhood. At the wine tasting, he asks if the black waiter is a slave, to which the "commander" of the Knights of the Vine society in Jackson, Miss., replies that there was "a law that was passed that they could no longer be used as slaves -- which is a good thing for them." ("Oh, good for him, not so good for you!" Borat yelps, picking up an undercurrent that may not have even been evident to them.)
And he does all of it with a wide-eyed, kiss-you-on-the-cheek, "America is No. 1" insouciance that lowers everybody's guard -- which must be it, because, otherwise, what's going on? Why is it that Borat can boast to a recruiter at a financial services company that he can "hold down a large woman for three hours" or patiently explain to a career counselor how his last job consisted of masturbating camels, and both men will nod patiently, never so much as cracking a smile or doing a double take, unflappably respectful of their "cultural differences" until the end.
Are they media-coached to the point of catatonia? So secure in their cultural superiority and so clueless about the world around them that they actually believe that this nice, besuited television reporter from Central Asia has never seen a toilet before? Are they dead?
This, I think, is where the genius and horror of Borat's explorations really lie: The joke is not on the U.S. or Kazakhstan or even the fake Kazakhstan of Cohen's imagination. The joke is on petrified, inward-looking nationalism of all stripes. What's funny is a jingoism so blinkered it can't see the joke in a fake Kazakh singing the fake Kazakh national anthem to the tune of the American one. (Or the irony, for that matter, in the malaprop: "I support your war of terror!")
That scene from the movie, which takes place at a rodeo, is a prime example of Cohen's almost lunatic gutsiness (according to reports, the joke nearly got him killed). The scene, of course, killed too -- though it made me wonder what percentage of Borat's legions of fans see past the crazy stunts and poop humor and into the heart of Cohen's trenchant satire. Certainly, the screening I attended was packed mostly with a low-humor crowd that isn't necessarily representative of his admirers. The median age seemed to fall somewhere between first shave and learner's permit, and the scene was fittingly rowdy. (Caught up in the anticipation, a skinny kid two rows in front of me extended an impromptu, top-of-the-lungs invitation to any girl wishing to occupy the seat next to his -- any girl at all. There were no takers.)
Cohen is nothing if not a master at making the medicine go down all but unperceived. Along with a modest handful of comedians (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, not too many others) who have succeeded in delivering what is most troubling about the Bush era by reviving satire and eschewing the knowing sarcasm of the Letterman-Miller-Maher years, he has executed a perfect pancake-flip inversion on the relationship between the audience and the source of humor. The best comedy is no longer derisive or an expression of contempt; it's cathartic, a nervous release.
Wherever Borat goes, he encounters a real threat -- not to him, but to his creator. Cohen was educated at Cambridge and is a practicing Jew who clearly finds more than humor in the fact that he can wander into a gun store, ask for the best weapon with which to kill a Jew, and not have the salesman bat an eye.
What Borat's many American teachers (the etiquette, dating and humor coaches; the wine experts; etc.) have in common is an unshakable belief in their manifest destiny. ("He could be Americanized in no time," says a society lady in the film, who is in for a very rude awakening that nonetheless fails to awaken her.) What his other friends -- the people at the rodeos and gun ranges, gun shops and ball games -- seem to share is an expansive tolerance toward xenophobia and racial bias.
In one famous episode of "Da Ali G Show" that takes place at the "Country West Dancing and Lounge" in Tucson, Borat gets onstage and easily engages a crowd in a rousing rendition of his own song, "In My Country There Is Problem," which culminates in a cheerful chorus of "throw the Jew down the well, so my country can be free." Maybe it's that "free" that incites an instinctive clapping of the hands. Maybe everyone in the bar, even the cross-eyed toothless youngster in the corner, is in on the joke. Maybe the kids at the mall get it too. Either way, Borat's "cultural learnings" may not "for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan" so much as, say, for glorious state of Arizona.