Lacerating irony has rarely had such a sweet, unassuming face as that of Borat Sagdiyev, the sixth most famous reporter in Kazakhstan.
Crossing America in a repurposed ice cream truck and a shabby gray suit, mustache aquiver for the nuances of life in this grand old "US and A," Borat maneuvers himself into situations with average Americans -- feminists, churchgoers, frat boys, politicians -- and unloads one frag-bomb of political incorrectness after another. All he asks is that we show ourselves to him in our open-hearted, bigoted glory.
And we do. Good Lord, do we ever. "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is a comic put-on of awe-inspiring crudity and death-defying satire and by a long shot the funniest film of the year. It is "Jackass" with a brain and Mark Twain with full frontal male nudity.
The enlightened cynicism of H.L. Mencken and Jonathan Swift courses through this movie's veins, along with the social curiosity of Alexis de Tocqueville, the scientific eye of a wildlife biologist, and a great comedian's love of the unspeakably juvenile.
Which is to say I hurt myself laughing at "Borat," but I'm not sure whether it was from the jokes or from the deep clefts the movie leaves in our national psyche.
Borat, of course, is not Borat at all but Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comic and star of HBO's "Da Ali G Show" on which the character makes regular appearances. The shtick is simple: Borat, a descendant of SNL's "wild and crazy guys" and Balki from "Perfect Strangers," sets up an interview with a subject who's unaware he or she is being spoofed. He asks increasingly outrageous questions, and waits patiently for an explosion, and because he seems sincere -- and because our parents have raised us to be nice to agreeable foreigners who mangle the English language -- it usually takes a good long while before the interviewees pull the plug.
This is "Candid Camera" as confrontational art, and it's both cruel and undeniably funny. It's also revelatory: In the lag time before Borat's subjects have had enough, they tend to say things they might otherwise not. When a
Directed with engaging looseness by Larry Charles, "Borat" is structured as a documentary that sends our intrepid reporter to New York City along with his truculent producer Azamat (Ken Davitian). Their mission is to bring lessons home from the greatest country in the world to help with Kazakhstan's major issues, "economic, social, and Jew." Borat's cheerful, unrepentant anti-Semitism is wielded as a double-edged sword, one that rubs salt in the wounds of post-Soviet bigotry and all-American racism. (When he finally meets some actual Jews -- in the form of a sweet old couple who run a B&B -- his panic says as much as their obliviousness.)
The trick is to take the most indefensible social position and see where people don't agree with it. Once Borat gets a glimpse of Pamela Anderson on late-night TV, he's off and running to California to claim his bride, and his tour takes him through the deep South . There's a mind-scorching dinner party with a group of wealthy Alabamans who live on Secession Drive -- Baron Cohen keeps pushing their buttons until he finds the one that makes them scream uncle -- and a rodeo at which he assures the assembled throng that Kazakhstanis "support your war of terror" and where Borat finds common ground over the preferred treatment of gay people.
I think my favorite scene is the one where a disconsolate Borat -- temporarily separated from Azamat and their bear (don't ask) -- hitches a ride with a group of University of South Carolina frat brothers in an RV. They could be the three faces of American male youth, drunk on beer, bravado, and stupidity. One inveighs against the "bitches" that let men down, a second goes even deeper into misogyny (you can count his future divorces using both hands), and the third -- the chubby one who the other two probably make fun of behind his back -- cheers this strange little foreigner with heartfelt words of emotional support. There it is: Everything that makes this country ugly and great in one Winnebago.
Actually, I take that back: The funniest sequence in "Borat" takes place between the newscaster and his producer, and when you see it you'll know which one I mean. It's not that I don't want to spoil the scene. I just can't describe it without losing my job.
Baron Cohen is Jewish, and Borat's native tongue in the film is a potted, enthusiastic mixture of Hebrew and double-talk; in any event, he's an authentic Kazakhstani the way Chico Marx was a real Italian. That the government of Kazakhstan has taken umbrage over "Borat" is just the icing on the cupcake of a pretty good joke. What makes the film lift off into the ether, though, is Baron Cohen's skills as a master ironist and physical comedian.
He'll do anything for a laugh but he never once breaks character -- never winks to let the audience off the hook -- and the most sublime moments come from Borat's merrily dense collision with our complicated values. Informed that in this country a woman has the right to choose with whom she has sex, he responds with an incredulous "Whaaat?," and you almost feel the poor man's pain. Isn't America a beacon of heedless pleasures? Don't we promise freedom, fast cars, and a porn star in every bed? Where's the beef?
"Borat" is silliness at its most trenchant, and if your sense of irony isn't factory installed, you'll probably find it horrifying. Take comfort in the thought that we get the cultural commentators and the comedians we deserve, and that in Borat and Sacha Baron Cohen we have found our curse and our blessing.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.