Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen), Kazakhstanian TV reporter, is dispatched to America on a mission. Borat and his producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) are supposed to shoot interview pieces around New York City and, in theory, also bring back some ideas that might help Kazakhstan move into the 21st Century. Hence the full title: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. And judging by Borat's opening scenes in "Kazakhstan" (which were actually shot in Romania), maybe even making it to the 19th Century might be a stretch in some areas. But anything can happen when traveling. Borat becomes obsessed with that symbol of all things American, Pamela Anderson, and abandons his mission to begin a poorly-funded, shoddily-planned and wildly ill-advised trip across America. ...
There is no way to quantify or qualify Borat as a film; you're pretty much immediately bowled over by a barrage of shockingly inappropriate jokes, and even then each one can be deconstructed down to individual atoms of brilliance. Early on, we get to see some of Borat's TV appearances; in one, he leans over a railing as a group of men wait in the streets for one of Kazakhstan's annual traditions: The Running of the Jews. That phrase is shocking, and so incongruous as to be funny ... but when the main attractions shows up, in a costume with a papier-maché head that looks like a perfect reproduction of a caricature from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, you're doubled over in laughter and a little awed by the amount of intellectual effort that's gone into a millisecond sight gag. And then there's a third joke that goes off like a depth charge a few seconds later ... and that leads to a perfectly timed, perfectly executed closer. This isn't a structured joke; it's choreographed, a dance of ideas and references and collective memories.
And then, of course, there are naked men wrestling. In the middle of a dinner meeting of realtors. The realtors, of course, did not know that their meeting would be interrupted by naked wrestling men as part of a low-cost comedy releasing on 837 screens in a limited, high-buzz platformed pattern, backed by 20th Century Fox. From what I'm given to understand, no one -- from the RV-driving frat boys to the inner-city homies, from sea to shining sea -- knew, as Borat interviews highly-placed elected officials, car dealers, leaders of clergy and the man in the street.
Put aside the ethical and artistic questions raised by videotaping what happens when you are out for a ride with a professional driving instructor and pull a mickey of vodka out of your coat -- and rest assured, there will be long, weird term papers written, titled The Ethics of Borat, in the near future. What's just as impressive about Borat is its scope. Driving from New York to California in a new vehicle -- "Something in the six-hundred to six-hundred-and-fifty dollar range," as Borat explains to a car salesman -- Borat and Azamat see America. Like Alexis de Tocqueville did in 1831, Borat's come to see how the American experiment is working. And, just as in 1831, the journey suggests it's a bit of a work-in-progress. Borat may be one of the most politically interesting comedies of the past 20 years, just in terms of the breadth and audacity of its ideas.
Oh, and there's livestock involved. And jokes about poop. And gratuitous nudity -- gratuitous male nudity -- and that really dumb joke where you tell someone they've just eaten something disgusting after they've put it in their mouth. Of course, the 'someone' in Borat is former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, and the 'something disgusting' is, in fact, truly disgusting. This is what separates Borat from, say, Jackass: Do you think Steve-o is smart enough to get within 50 yards of Bob Barr with a camera? Mel Brooks was once told one of his films was vulgar. His response was " ... my film rises below vulgarity." And so it is with Borat -- there's something here to offend everyone, which is interesting in that it makes you stop and think about what it is you're actually offended by, and why. And Borat is even funny in simple, elegant ways -- a gibberish line delivery that, in subtitles, becomes a perfect two-syllable joke; the way Cohen hijacks the singing of the national anthem at a Rodeo in Virginia, or gets a Texas Pentecostal assembly to serve as his collective straight man in an old-time vaudeville joke.
... Which leads into some speaking in tongues, which is not how I remember old-time vaudeville jokes ending. Borat is asked, at the rodeo in Virginia, if he is a Muslim. He shakes his head. "No, Kazahkstan -- We follow the hawk!" The gentleman nods and explains America is a Christian nation. Is the joke that for all we know, Kazakhstan may, in fact, have a long cultural tradition of hawk worship? Or is it that Borat sure believes some funny stuff, and we do too?
One of the films' hardest jokes to take is when Borat observes that a gathering of five or more women in his country is only allowed in a brothel, or a grave. It's as fast and as mean as a knife to the ribs. The laughter gives way to a real recognition of the ugly fact that there are nations where that joke is close to a fact of life. And then, there's the sight of a large mammal in a hotel swimming pool! Which can't be legal, or even a good idea! But there it is! And it's perfect! Borat the man and Borat the movie both walk through a world gone mad, where every punchline tastes a little like battery acid and you laugh until it hurts. Maybe because it hurt a little already. Borat's the most interesting, challenging comedy since, say, Blazing Saddles, and it's a welcome arrival: Desperate times call for desperate laughter.