Sacha Baron Cohen, aka "Ali G," "Borat Sagdiyev" and most-recently the gay French Nascar rival in "Taladega Nights," is undisputedly one of the most talented comedians on the planet right now. And with "Borat," a feature film mockumentary expanding on a character from his "Da Ali G Show," he may eventually have to add to his credits having provided perhaps the most profoundly important foriegn influence over American comedy since "SCTV." This is the funniest movie of the year.
The premise is simple: Cohen inhabits the persona of Borat, a popular TV reporter from the impoverished Central Asian nation of Khazakstan, who has been sent to America to film a documentary about U.S. culture in order that his countrymen may learn from it. But here's the gag: Cohen-as-Borat films his own encounters with real people who are not in on the joke. As far as the various politicians, newspeople, celebrities, business owners and passers-by know, the man they are speaking to really is a strange little man from a country they've never heard of.
And so we have it: Real-world reactions to a character who isn't real, but seems to be. And what a character he is, an all-in-one summation of every caricature ever drawn about wacky Old World tourists; at once a naively innocent yokel (yes, thats a live rooster in his luggage) and a boorish, misogynist anti-semite (Cohen is Jewish.)
He's designed, it seems, to bring out the silliest in people regardless of their culture or ideology. His accent and overly-affectionate greetings draw threats and shock from "conservatives," but he mines the best comedy gold in what amounts to an all-out assault on "progressive" cultural relativism: Without the lingering spectre of Political Correctness, "Borat" wouldn't work. It's the dogged determination of "sophisticated" Americans and Euros to excuse the ridiculous (and often outright offensive) words and actions of certain groups and/or people because "well, that's their culture, and we have to respect those differences and be open minded" that makes their reaction to Borat so damn hillarious.
For example, it's funny enough when Borat casually asks a gun salesman which weapon would be best to kill a Jew (Jews, we are shown, are regarded as demonic creatures of myth in Borat's Khazakstan) but the real hilarity is watching the salesman continue to grimmace his way through the sale, eventually reccomending a 9mm. If he followed his apparent gut instinct and simply told Borat to get the hell out of his store, it wouldn't be nearly as funny. (Ali G worked a similar duality, mocking both the absurdities of African American hip-hop culture AND the absurdities of white British youth trying to emulate it.)
It must be said, though, that the film get's it's most prolonged laugh for one of it's scripted moments: A scene of bewildering gross-out physical comedy as Borat engages in an impromptu nude fistfight/wrestling-match across a fancy hotel with his surly, overweight producer. The scene is funny enough to draw tears, which have the added advantage of obscuring some (but not all) of what has to be the most unpleasant male nudity put on film in a long time. Other scenes, like the running subplot about Borat's quest to find Pamela Anderson or a surreal moment involving the live bear that Borat is keeping in his ice cream truck transportation, prove that Cohen and company are as adept at scripted comedy as they are at improvised lunacy.
The comedy is so inspired that it's generating humor without even trying: Khazakstan, the real Khazakstan, is so enraged by the film (the Khazakstan Borat comes from is a fictionalized place defined by poverty, incest, prostitution and a festival called "The Running of The Jew," and was filmmed in Romania) and the prospect that people might mistake Mr. Sagdiyev for a real Khazak that they've allocated government funds to produce a historical epic to "refute" Borat, and last month even sent their ambassador to the White House in order to conference on improving U.S./Khazak relations in the wake of the film. Guess who crashed the party, or rather stood outside the gates and drew all the media attention.
Amazingly, the film is only playing in 800 theaters... but at the time of this writing the boxoffice numbers are coming in showing that "Borat" defied all analysts predictions and out-performed the assumed juggernaut "Santa Clause 3." Come Monday morning, all of Hollywood will be abuzz about one thing: A low-budget "niche" spoof about a man with a fake accent asking bystander's stupid questions is now the number one movie in America. There will be reverberations, a ripple effect, maybe a Best Actor nomination for Cohen (though I betcha Borat will be a presenter either way, just wait) etc. Comedy filmmaking just got it's biggest refreshment in years.
FINAL RATING: 9/10