New Yak City

Washington City Paper | November 3, 2006
Maybe before bizarrely boasting in the New York Times that its country is home to, among other good stuff, “the planet’s largest population of wolves,” the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan should have realized this: The intolerant, misogynistic, and backwoods Kazakhstani journalist and the documentary-style film the government is unofficially responding to is fictional. The United States, however, doesn’t have any excuses for some of the very real citizens depicted in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Borat Sagdiyev is the creation of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen of Da Ali G Show, whose sketches involve Cohen inhabiting one of three ridiculous characters (including Borat) around unsuspecting audiences. The concept is a little Candid Camera, is a bit more of Punk’d, and most closely resembles the non-crotch-crunching skits of Jackass. But Cohen’s Borat is a departure: His victims never find out it’s a joke, he blames his offensive statements and behavior on his unsophisticated birthplace, and, at least in Borat the film, it’s the people he deals with who often end up showing their ignorance. Do you laugh or gasp, for example, when a rodeo cowboy tells Borat that “we’re” trying to get the United States to hang homosexuals like they allegedly do in Kazakhstan? Or when a gun supplier has an instant recommendation when the foreigner requests the best weapon for killing a Jew? (Cohen is Jewish.) Women, too, get a verbal bitches-and-hos treatment, courtesy of chest-thumping college kids.

For the most part, though, Cohen isn’t hellbent on easily eliciting the discrimination of a few Americans, and viewers who aren’t afraid of a little scatological humor or a lot of what the MPAA would call “adult situations” will have a blast. (Fans of The Aristocrats, I’m talking to you.) Directed by Larry Charles, a Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm contributor, and co-written by Cohen and a trio of others (Old School’s Todd Phillips also gets a story credit), Borat is centered on the journalist’s attempt to make a documentary about life in the states. Borat and his assistant, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), initially intend to film only in New York, but Borat insists on traveling the country to get to California after he discovers “the beautiful CJ,” aka Pamela Anderson, on Baywatch.

This leads to other scenes of much funnier regional stereotypes, such as the New Yorkers who almost universally tell the affectionate Borat to fuck off when he tries to greet them and the considerably warmer reception he gets when his Washington, D.C., visit (not the recent publicity stunt) coincides with a popular annual event. Black teens hanging out, a feminist group, Southern conservatives, and Pentecostal Christians all get Borat’s innocent-seeming teach-me treatment. (“Hazmat!” he cries at the Pentecostal church when speaking in tongues.) Some, entertainingly, take a liking to him. Others are appalled—though sometimes it takes a while for the outrage to set in because, well, he’s so gosh-darn nice. Anderson, whom Borat wants to marry, seems to be the only person who must be in on the joke.

The “movie-film,” as Borat likes to say, isn’t 82 minutes of nonstop hilarity, as there expectedly are a few scenes in which a gag is taken too far or the story just lags. The details of Borat, however, are consistently brilliant: The credits are in Kazakh—purportedly—on a grainy and faded background. “Everybody’s Talking” plays when Borat arrives in New York. And if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the bathing suit. But the most impressive ingredient is Cohen, whose inflection and timing are dead-on as he negotiates a vague accent, a native language composed of gibberish and a sprinkling of Polish, and a way of making tired American jokes funny again. The fact that he is able to use this vehicle to expose the open hate that still exists here is just a surprising bonus.

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