Most of us couldn't find Kazakhstan on a map, but what would we do with it if we could? It's so...foreign. And England's Sacha Baron Cohen rides that for all it's worth in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The most dangerous comedian to come our way since Andy 'Man on the Moon' Kaufman was daring audiences not to laugh, Cohen is, in real life, a nice Jewish boy who graduated from Cambridge University. But most people know him as Ali G, the Tupac-worshiping rapper/TV interviewer whose arrogance is matched only by his ignorance. Or Bruno, the Austrian fashionista whose arrogance is matched only by his accent. Or Borat, the wild and crazy guy/Kazakh TV interviewer whose ignorance of our country is matched only by our ignorance of his.
We pay dearly for that ignorance in Borat, where Cohen (who never breaks character, even when the cops arrive) sets off on a journey across this great country of ours, fanning the flames of racism, sexism, homophobia and good ol' stupidity. Not since de Tocqueville gathered material for Democracy in America have we allowed ourselves to be X-rayed so radioactively. And Cohen's a hell of a lot funnier than de Tocqueville! Posing as a documentary, the movie opens back in the Old Country, where Borat introduces us to such local customs as the annual Running of the Jew, in which a large papier-mÃchÃ devil's head with horns is chased through the dusty village streets before being pummeled. Then it's off to 'the U.S. and A,' where the local customs, now that you think about it, are no less bizarre, no less repulsive.
Okay, less repulsive, but Cohen has a special knack for zeroing in on our funny bones. When Borat arrives at his New York hotel, he mistakes the elevator for his room. Then, to freshen up, he splashes his face with water from the toilet. Later, he appears to be taking a dump in the bushes outside Trump Tower. People look on, aghast ' as aghast as New Yorkers get, anyway. But the character, however outrageous, is just convincing enough to give them pause. A man in the subway threatens to kick Borat's ass when, as is customary in Kazakhstan, Borat tries to kiss him on both cheeks. But that's no less amusing than the men ' scores of them ' who quietly endure the double-whammy. As long as Cohen gets people to buy into the act, he can't lose. And almost everybody buys in.
Not only that, they sign release forms, but they sign them before they've met Borat. And what they neglect to do, apparently, is read the fine print. Thus does Borat hire a humor coach, an etiquette coach and a driving instructor, all of whom make minor asses out of themselves while trying to Americanize a man who, when he returns from the bathroom at a genteel Southern dinner party, brings along a bag of his own excrement and politely asks his hostess how to dispose of it. Borat also knows how to work a crowd. At a Southern rodeo, he's given a rousing round of applause when he salutes America's 'war of terror.' Then they turn on him when he mangles the national anthem. Later, he'll find Jesus ' or 'Mr. Jesus,' as he calls him ' at a Pentecostal revival meeting, speaking in tongues before passing out. Praise the Lord.
And pass the ammunition, because it's hard to believe Cohen isn't going to take things too far one day. The rodeo crowd seems ready to lynch him on the spot. And the movie's so outrageous it's managed to offend both the Anti-Defamation League, which is afraid not everybody understands the difference between an anti-Semitic joke and an anti-anti-Semitic joke, and the government of Kazakhstan, which doesn't relish Cohen telling the world that the country's favorite beverage is made from horse urine. Strictly in matters of taste, the movie probably does go too far when Borat and his extra-large 'producer' engage in a long bout of nude wrestling, complete with sun-don't-shine close-ups. But whether you're plussed or nonplussed by Cohen's antics, you'll have to agree that nobody else is taking these kinds of chances.
Somebody call the INS.