In the face of misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism and ignorance, you have three choices: Get mad, get depressed or get funny. While most indulge in the first two, there are some who embrace the latter: people like Sacha Baron Cohen, who understands that the things we're not supposed to laugh about are usually the funniest. Best known as the gangsta-rap prop-up from his HBO series, Da Ali G Show, Cohen's guerrilla satire mixes the political incorrectness of Sarah Silverman, the fearlessness of Andy Kaufman and the chameleon-like abilities of Peter Sellers.
Da Ali G Show featured a trio of outrageous "journalists" who blindsided individuals (many, public figures) with stupid and shockingly offensive questions. These hit-and-run interviews cut to the core of hot-button issues, and offered up a cultural critique that was both brutal and side-splitting.
Cohen's most offensive creation is Borat Sagdiyev, an oblivious Kazakhstani TV reporter who struggles to understand American culture through his sincerely sexist and anti-Semitic attitudes. His character is so convincing that Cohen's interviewees are often lulled into revealing their own repugnant opinions. Think of it as extreme Candid Camera, one where the audience in a country-western bar in Tucson is easily coaxed into singing along to a rousing rendition of "Throw the Jew down the well."
At less than 90 minutes, Borat is an uproarious procession of rude and raunchy skits some funnier than others held together by a flimsy story line: Borat is sent on assignment to New York, along with his producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian). When he stumbles across a rerun of Baywatch, he becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson and vows to make her his wife. This sends the duo on a trek across America, as they experience our country in all its narrow-minded glory. Taking etiquette lessons from Southern socialites, singing the national anthem at a rodeo, road tripping with drunken frat boys and getting "saved" at a church revival, Borat shocks, offends and embarrasses nearly everyone he meets.
In one scene, Baron Cohen subtly coaxes a particularly nasty bit of gay-bashing from a good ol' rodeo cowboy. In another, he asks a gun shop owner for the best weapon to kill Jews. The clerk recommends a gold-plated pistol.
It's a double-edged sword indulging in nasty stereotypes to satirize and expose the attitudes of everyday Americans and not everyone will get it. The film pretty much has something to offend everyone: Americans, Christians, feminists, gays even bears. In particular, Borat's brazen anti-Semitism may send more than a few of the chosen people fleeing the theater in disgust (despite the fact Baron Cohen is a practicing Jew).
Still, it's humor with a point. Cohen is sneakier and smarter than he lets on, unmasking people's latent ugliness while lampooning our own social and political institutions. Though some might miss it, the film reveals America at both its worst and its best. While Borat's impropriety appeals to some, others swallow their revulsion and gently attempt to correct the reporter's more ignorant beliefs.
Director Larry Charles who replaced the talentless Todd Phillips (School For Scoundrels, Road Trip) after he walked off the set over "creative differences" shot the movie like a low-budget documentary, and keeps Borat moving along and ties the skits together so effectively you barely notice how threadbare the narrative really is.
Like the Jackass movies, many will find Cohen's film simply too distasteful to enjoy. For the rest of us, however, it's a glorious smorgasbord of squirm-inducing bigotry, lowbrow slapstick and blistering social commentary.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].