Laughing and Cringing at Uncomfortable Satire
Sacha Baron Cohen in 'Borat'
"Borat," or to give it its full title, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," is the brainchild of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, a performer who is touched by a kind of genius so savage it makes you consider the very nature of comedy and what makes us laugh.
As was evident in his British-bred HBO television series "Da Ali G Show," Cohen has a gift for staying in character, for submerging himself so deeply into the personas he creates you wonder if the man himself could come up for air even if he wanted to.
First seen on the HBO show, Borat Sagdiyev is a fictional television journalist from Kazakhstan, a real country portrayed here as such a hotbed of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and all-around inappropriate behavior that a Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman plaintively said: "We understand that Borat is a kind of satire, but it is just a pity that Mr. Cohen chose Kazakhstan as the origin of his hero."
With his wide-eyed, pasted-on grin, thick mustache and loping Groucho Marx gait, Borat is a profane innocent with a will of steel, as earnest as he is devious, someone who is so a product of his stridently politically incorrect culture that his actions are intended make us question aspects of our own.
As conceived and written by Cohen and three other writers and directed by Larry Charles ("Seinfeld"), "Borat" begins in its hero's dilapidated hometown of Kuczek (actually shot in Romania). There we meet his celebrated sister, "No. 4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan," and witness one of the town's most revered customs, the Running of the Jew, in which local kids chase an enormous papier-mache Hebrew through the streets of the city. And the fun is just beginning.
Most of "Borat" involves the man's journey to "the U.S. and A" with his producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian). The trip begins in New York City and ends, after Borat falls in love with Pamela Anderson via old "Baywatch" episodes, with a cross-country drive to California in a dilapidated ice cream van.
Along the way Borat has various misadventures, as often as not involving masturbation and defecation, each episode intended to be more outrageous and potentially offensive than the last. (This is likely the first film ever with a "Feces provided by" credit.) Among the more memorable incidents are:
-- a speech at a Virginia rodeo where Borat tells the crowd, "We support your war of terror. May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq";
-- an encounter with a Southern bed-and-breakfast run by a Jewish couple where Borat insists that two roaches who invade his room are the shape-shifted owners and throws dollar bills at the bugs to mollify them;
-- a jaw-dropping, completely nude bout of no-holds-barred wrestling between Borat and his rotund producer that goes considerably beyond anything that can be seen on YouTube, or anywhere else.
Because the "Borat" crew shot the film's interviews as if Cohen really was a clueless Kazakh journalist, none of the people who appear in it (except for wrestling partner Davitian and an actress who plays a prostitute) are aware that they are talking to a guerrilla comedian, not a foreign newsman.
We don't laugh at all of this, but we laugh at more of it than would seem possible, even if our laughter makes us uncomfortable enough to wonder why. For one of the unexpected things that seeing "Borat" underlines is that we don't only laugh because something strikes us as amusing. We laugh out of astonishment and disbelief, out of embarrassment for what the people on screen are going through, and because 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 page because of Cohen's powerful comic presence. This is a very smart guy with the innate likability all comedians have to have, and he is very deft at what he does.
In addition to a taste for slapstick (watch for him negotiating his way down the first escalator of his life), Cohen has a remarkable knack for improvisational response -- he's dazzling at a garage sale he stumbles across -- that serves him here just as it did when he was Ali G.
Again in the Ali G mode, Borat the reporter specializes in tweaking people in power and the blindly prejudicial. Looking especially poleaxed are a pair of pillars of the conservative Republican establishment, former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr and Alan Keyes. And a man at that Virginia rodeo is allowed to hang himself with his gleefully homophobic comments.
But because Cohen is intentionally provocative, willing to mock whoever crosses his path, he ends up baiting the harmless and playing ordinary people for fools just because they are gullible and had the bad luck to run into him, and it's here that the laughter especially sticks in your throat. The car dealer who doesn't object when Borat makes anti-Gypsy remarks might not be a secret racist but simply someone who decided it was a mug's game to get further involved with an obvious lunatic. And the Southern dining society that gets mercilessly humiliated seems to have committed no sin worse than earnestness, credulity and hospitality.
With his corrosive brand of take-no-prisoners humor that scalds on contact, Cohen is the most intentionally provocative comedian since Lenny Bruce and the early days of Richard Pryor -- with a difference. For unlike those predecessors, there is a mean-spiritedness, a lurking every-man-for-himself coldness about his humor. The one kind of laughter you won't find in "Borat" is laughter that acknowledges shared humanity. Instead, there is that pitiless staple of reality TV, watching others humiliating themselves for our viewing pleasure.
Gifted and funny though he is, Cohen and his love of transgression are finally very much of and about our time. For better or worse, we deserve each other, and we might as well laugh.