We spent a decent portion of "Borat" with our hands over our eyes. We also spent a decent portion laughing, so don’t take that the wrong way. "Borat" isn’t really a film for the likes of us; we have a tough time with the comedy of excruciation, and dread at what was going to happen when our hero was invited to a formal Southern dinner (located, the camera pauses to note, on a street called Secession Lane) almost drove us out of the theater.
Borat Sagdiyev, Kazakhstan’s most famous fictional resident, is the greatest creation of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s entirely due to Baron Cohen’s gifts as an actor and improviser that Borat, who’s a ludicrous and fantastic conception of a foreigner from a non-threatening third world country, comes across as believable. Baron Cohen totally inhabits the role of Borat, right down to lousy cut of his signature smelly grey suit. He’s invented a family, a hometown, an ersatz language and array of over-the-top customs for Borat; after watching the film, Baron Cohen’s insistence on doing all interviews leading up to the theatrical release in character makes total sense. For him to discuss his character in the third person wouldn’t just be inconsistent â€” it would verge on blasphemous. Borat is real!
And so are the people he meets. The film’s storyline, that Borat and his overweight producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) have come to the US to film a documentary for Kazakhstani television, is only an excuse to get the characters on the road and interacting with the citizens of America’s heartland. Borat’s initial encounters with less-than-welcoming New Yorkers are more wince-inducing than funny; it’s not until he begins meeting people too polite to immediately tell him to fuck off that the film swings into gear.
If you’ve seen Borat segments from "Da Ali G Show," you’ll know what you’re in for. "Borat"’s episodes are a little more grand and a lot more reckless, but they still rest on the ability the character has to pull out the vulnerable worst in others. Borat’s unflappable good nature, his blatant prejudices, his maladroitness and his unwavering adoration of all things American trigger something in people, a mix of the conspiratorial and the condescending that leads them to say jaw-dropping things (when asked which weapon would be best suited for killing Jews, a gun store owner advises without missing a beat that a nine millimeter is probably the way to go).
We are a little mystified by those who would call the film subversive. We wish it was; we wish we could read more satirical value into it. But the bounds "Borat" pushes are ones of audience comfort, not social commentary. Yes, there’s inimitable pleasure in watching Baron Cohen, dressed in a gaudy stars-and-stripes shirt and cowboy hat, garnering a roar of support from the crowd at a rodeo by yelling "We support your war of terror!" But otherwise, "Borat" gets its laughs from the ugly ignorance of others â€” and what’s new about that?
Opens nationwide on November 3rd.