Sascha Baron Cohen has now made two films based upon his alter egos, and I am happy to report that the second, "Borat," is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in quite some time. The film, which got a sneak preview at Cannes, is part road movie, part shockumentary, and part astute cultural commentary.
Borat is sent from his village to make a documentary on America for the Kazakh Ministry of Information. As always, he maintains a cheerful, can-do attitude that dovetails with his raunchy inappropriateness and cultural ignorance. Oh, and casual, almost chipper, anti-Semitism (it should be noted that Cohen himself is an observant Jew). Along with his road manager, Borat hits the road, ultimately deciding to head for California after falling in love with a certain "Baywatch" cast member.
The main problem with Cohen’s previous feature, "Ali G Indahouse," was that, in shoehorning the Ali G character into a shopworn stoner plot, the film fundamentally misunderstood what made him funny — namely, the punking of politicians and prominent cultural figures on his TV show. "Borat" has a plot as well, but those cringe-worthy (and howlingly funny) interviews are seamlessly worked into the scenario. (Former Congressman Bob Barr and periodic presidential candidate Alan Keyes both look deeply uncomfortable being on camera with Borat.)
Many of the jokes in "Borat" cannot even be described on a family website; many scenes are simply staggering in their gleeful offensiveness. But the film is more than simply an exercise in tastelessness; while Borat may be ignorant and small-minded, it’s nothing compared to some of the people he meets on his cross-country journey. And while it appears that some of the scenes are staged, it’s clear that most are not; one of the best things about the film is the way that people’s off-the-cuff behavior meshes so seamlessly with the scripted portions of the movie.
Take the scene in which Borat puts in an appearance at a rodeo. He starts off strong, drawing applause by praising America for its "war of terror" before singing the words of the supposed Kazakh national anthem to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner," drawing hearty boos. Offensive? Without a doubt. But what about the guy he talks to beforehand, who, seemingly unprompted, makes several casual, but terrifically offensive, anti- Muslim and anti-gay comments? Because Borat seems so clueless, people to open up to him (on camera!), revealing the ugly underside of America.
The best comedians are remarkable for their ability to express things that most people wouldn’t dare say. What separates Cohen is his ability to get these people to speak the words themselves, uncensored.