Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

As Borat Sagdiyev, a visitor from Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen is a balls-out comic revolutionary, right up there with Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Dr. Strangelove, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Cartman at exposing the ignorant, racist, misogynist, gay-bashing, Jew-hating, gun-loving, warmongering heart of America. Borat will make you laugh till it hurts, and you'll still beg for more.

Borat, subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, sneaks up on you. Or it will if you're not part of the cult spawned when HBO premiered Cohen's Da Ali G Show in 2003, and Americans first encountered the inspired British comic who hid behind a series of alter egos. His gangsta journalist Ali G tricked politicians (Newt Gingrich, Boutros Boutros-Ghali) and pundits (Gore Vidal, Andy Rooney) into embarrassing and revealing interviews. His Bruno, a gay fashion commentator with a Nazi fetish, claimed to be the voice of Austrian youth. And then there's Borat, the smiling, shamelessly offensive TV reporter from Kazakhstan who takes pride that his sister is "the number-four prostitute in all of country" where a ritual — "the running of the Jew" — is celebrated every year ("There you go, kids, crush that Jew egg before it hatches"). Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world, but Cohen is counting on the fact that most Americans know squat about it or him. For the record, Cohen, 35, is nothing like Borat, Bruno, Ali G or Jean Girard, the gay French Formula Un driver who kissed Will Ferrell full on the lips in Talladega Nights. Cohen is a Cambridge scholar from a middle-class and devout Jewish family. Their son, the second of three, wrote his history thesis on the role of Jews in the American civil-rights movement. Not since Little Red Riding Hood have the unsuspecting been duped so hilariously by a big, bad wolf in sheep's clothing.

Borat is such a mind-blowing comedy classic in the making (seeing it once is just not enough) that Cohen's cover will surely be blown after the movie opens. But during the time it took Cohen to put Borat's journey on film with director Larry Charles (he debuted with Bob Dylan's Masked and Anonymous, a title that would also fit snugly here), people lined up, signed releases and bought the scam: that Borat, with his pubic patch of a mustache, his unwashed gray suit, his butchered English and his blatant bigotry, really was a roving Kazakh citizen doing a documentary on American culture.

OK, not everyone bought it. The government of Kazakhstan was appalled at seeing its country depicted as a place where men treat women as slaves, screw their sisters and swill wine made from horse piss. No wonder the Kazakh scenes were shot in Romania. "Not too much rape — and humans only," Borat helpfully tells a friend as he leaves his village for America, carrying "a vial of gypsy tears to prevent AIDS." Cohen makes primo slapstick out of all the silliness, but it's his merciless knack for Swiftian satire that gives Borat its remarkable staying power. There's something cathartic about laughs that stick in your throat.

Don't be fooled by how this demonically devious mockumentary looks (as wonderfully tacky as an $18 million budget will allow) or how it's organized (clever masked as haphazard), the film doesn't waste one of its eighty-nine minutes. The script that Cohen wrote with Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer tells us that Borat has a hidden agenda for coming to America. He's seen Baywatch and wants to take the "virgin" Pamela Anderson as his bride. When Borat catches his fat producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) jerking off to photos of Pam, he engages the hairy beast in a naked ass-to-mouth wrestling match that could set back screen nudity for decades. If you don't upchuck, the scene is uproarious and kicks off Borat's journey across America in an ice-cream truck (don't ask) to find his muse.

Will Borat get his "sexytime" with Pam and have his hoped-for "romantic explosion" on her stomach? I'll never tell. And I don't have to, because the core of this movie — its raison d'etre — is who and what Borat encounters along the way. No aspect of prejudice, hypocrisy, arrogance and stupidity is overlooked.

At a rodeo in Virginia, Borat is greeted with cheers when he tells the crowd, "We support your war of terror," and then hypes them up more by longing for the day that "Premier George W. Bush will drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq."

At a gun store he asks the owner for the best gun for killing Jews and is told that a 9mm or a 45 will do just fine. He settles for a live bear. Terrified at having to sleep overnight at the home of a kindly Jewish couple, Borat believes that two cockroaches crawling under the door are the Jews transformed. To make them go away, he throws money at them. And so it goes, with Borat's antics extending to a frat-boy boozefest, a Pentecostal church rally, a classy dinner party down South in which he is taught the formal art of toilet training and a confab with feminists who seem startled by the well-known fact in Kazakhstan that the brain of a woman is the size of a squirrel's. On the debit side, the attempt to snatch Anderson at a book-signing feels staged, as if the movie had suffered a brush with Hollywood. But the brush is quick and far from fatal. Cohen's total immersion in his character is a wonder to behold. If Oscar voters have any sense, they recognize his performance for what it is: a tour de force that sets off comic and cosmic explosions in your head. You won't know what outrageous fun is until you see Borat. High-five!

From The Archives Issue 345: June 11, 1981