A clueless Kazak reporter learns about America in uproariously funny mockumentary “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Lead character invented by Brit comedian Sacha Baron Cohen retains an innocent sweetness that mollifies offense his decidedly un-PC remarks might cause. Real-life butt of the pic’s pranks, authentic Kazaks, and the terminally humorless won’t, and already haven’t, seen the funny side. Nevertheless, briskly helmed by “Seinfeld” producer Larry Charles, “Borat” should make abundant B.O. benefit for Fox, especially among younger auds in the U.S. and Blighty.
In the U.K., Cohen and his various alter egos — white hip-hopper Ali G, Borat himself, and camp Austrian fashion reporter Bruno — are practically national icons whose catch-phrases (such as Ali G’s “Is it because I is black?”) have become common currency.
The Borat character reps Cohen at his best. As with Ali G, Borat’s modus operandi is to set himself up as a journalist and interview or interact with unsuspecting folk, asking them provocative questions that either shock or embarrass them, or, in some cases, prompt them to reveal their own prejudices.
Borat reps a comically distorted third-world country bumpkin whose intentionally backward attitudes have offended some critics and organizations, although Cohen (who is Jewish) insists the humor is ironic, and that part of his strategy is to expose bigotry and conformity.
Pic opens in Borat’s village, an entirely made-up version of Kazakhstan (end credits reveal Romania was used for locations). Talking straight to the camera, Borat proudly introduces his fellow villagers (“This is town rapist,” he says, pointing out one shifty looking character. “Naughty, naughty!”) and family (a blond he kisses full on the lips turn out to be his sister, “the fourth best prostitute in all of country,” Borat proudly reveals as she holds up a trophy.)
It’s little wonder the Kazak government, who have arguably more reason than most to take umbrage with the film, has publicly denounced it already, although in the end “Borat” may end up stimulating the country’s tourism industry more than upcoming Kazak-made blockbuster “Nomad.”
In his capacity as the sixth best-known reporter in Kazakhstan, Borat flies to New York with his obese producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) on a vaguely defined brief to interview locals about American customs.
While Borat and Azamat are en route to California so Borat can fulfill his secret dream of meeting Pamela Anderson (who gamely plays herself), they stop off at a rodeo. The crowd, accustomed to show hospitality to visiting celebrities, dutifully applaud when Borat tells them as a Kazak he supports their country’s “war of terror” and clap more quizzically when he wishes that “George Bush may drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq.” The booing only really starts when he starts mangling the national anthem.
And so it goes, the plot unfolding mostly via a series of vignettes, although a vague sense of drama is injected by having Borat and Azamat fall out with each other, leading to a masterfully executed slapstick bout of naked man-on-man wrestling, complete with an unfeasibly large black censor’s bar.
Meshing nicely with Cohen’s own precise comic timing, the helming credited to Larry Charles (pic’s previous director, Todd Phillips, reportedly pulled out halfway through the shoot) has an easy lightness of touch. Not a scene goes by that doesn’t generate a laugh or three throughout the pic’s lean running time.
Credit is no doubt due to the pic’s off-camera crew for maintaining straight faces while filming in order not to give the game away to the unsuspecting subjects. Likewise, Cohen’s seeming powers of improvisation, ability to stay in character and still come up with funny lines in hostile conditions impresses throughout.
Tech package, deliberately assembled to look low-budget, is pro. Praise is particularly due to editor Craig Alpert, whose cutting consistently enhances comic effect.