‘Hello, US and A!’ – Borat comes to the big screen
In one of the many comedic peaks in “Borat!: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the title character attends a formal dinner in Mississippi to practice the good manners of a “Southern Gentleman.” The party hosts and guests endure one riotous faux pas after another – including Borat returning from the bathroom, asking the host where he should dispose of a plastic bag full of his, er, leavings. But they lose their temper only when Borat’s friend, a rather big-boned African-American prostitute, shows up at the door. It’s hard to know whether to laugh, gasp or cry. Either way, you’ll have to pick your jaw up off the floor first. British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, who first created the Kazakh journalist for his BBC and HBO series “Da Ali G Show,” wields his offensive behavior like a weapon, and he uses it in ways that expose prejudices and hypocrisies in ordinary people that can be more frightening than the bald, naive bigotry of the Old-Country bumpkin Borat Sagdiyev. “Borat!” is an odd bird – a film that combines scripted bits of humor with filmed pranks a la ‘Jackass.’ But where ‘Jackass’ restricts itself to brain-dead pranks, “Borat!” balances low, low comedy with thought-provoking bits that embarrass both himself and his interview subjects. Throughout, Cohen’s prodigious talent for improvisation and total commitment to character float each scene along in what amounts to a masterpiece of “cringe comedy;” audiences will likely feel very uncomfortable throughout, but they’ll laugh all the way through, too. Borat comes to the ‘US and A’ (as he calls it) on assignment from the Kazakh embassy to take lessons from our society and bring them back to Kazakhstan. He first lands in New York, but he gets sidetracked when he discovers Pamela Anderson in late-night reruns of “Baywatch.” Borat and his unwitting, morbidly-obese producer Azamat Bagatov engage in a cross-country trek to Malibu, where Borat plans to make Anderson his wife.
Most of this is just an excuse to infiltrate Middle America, where Borat can easily shock average citizens with his backward ways and casual enjoyment of prostitutes. In the process, Borat offends a feminist group (“Is it not a problem that women have smaller brain than a man?”), interviews Alan Keyes and causes a rodeo to erupt in horror as he sings the Kazakh national anthem to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Baron Cohen is brilliant at blending complex gags with simple toilet humor, and he has the physical comedic genius of Peter Sellers. But he somehow cajoles seemingly regular Americans to tacitly agree with some heinous things. It’s impossible to know whether they’re doing it out of politeness to the strange foreigner, a need to conform, or some truly deep-seated prejudice, but it’s very disturbing to see your neighbors heartily agreeing with the fake Kazakh practice of lynching homosexuals. It reaches a crescendo when Borat joins a group of frat boys on the road who take no time to launch into tirades about wishing they had slaves and the fact that Jews and minorities are “in control.”These scenes temper the laughter, and they make you think deeper about the motivations of Baron Cohen, the individuals involved and our society at large. But if you don’t want to ponder or cringe at what might lie festering in the heart of society, don’t worry: You can just laugh at the spectacle of two naked, hairy men rolling down a hotel hallway in a wrestling match to the death. “Borat!” only loses momentum during a few staged scenes, which seem forced compared to Baron Cohen’s electrified improv. Much has been made of the rampant bigotry in the movie, including anti-Semitism, sexism and bearism, probably, but it’s all done in the service of making fun of the backward thinking that leads to such stupidity. If most Americans didn’t get the joke, I’d really be scared. “Borat!”s surprise, record-breaking box-office take ensures that Baron Cohen will likely be around for a long time – and that’s a good thing, because nobody does comedy quite like him. He has a rare ability to dig deep into the recesses of our subconscious while making poopy jokes. “Borat!” doesn’t really have any answers to the questions it raises, but the fact that it has the guts to ask them makes it deeper than almost any nominal comedy and elevates it into a category of its own. Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado