BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
Not your grandma’s warm and fuzzy comedy, Borat is a politically incorrect low-budget mockumentary that has broken $67 million at the box office. In an uncharted adventure that avoids safe humor at all costs, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan makes everyone howl in spite of themselves. Everyone except the people in the movie, who now feel humiliated and deceived and are suing 20th Century Fox. But more on that later.
Sacha Baron Cohen, the British host of HBO’s Da Ali G Show, poses as Borat, the untamed news anchor from Kazakhstan who visits the U.S. to take some cultural lessons back to his native country. And his coast-to-coast victims include an etiquette teacher, a comedy coach, a driving instructor, a small gathering of feminists, a Christian revival meeting, and even Pamela Anderson, who claims to be part of the act.
Borat’s mission is to confront people with their own preconceptions and prejudices. And to revel in their horror as they witness the shocking behavior of a shameless foreigner who carries a chicken in his duffel bag, who greets male and female strangers with a kiss on both cheeks, who sings his own offensive words to the national anthem at a Texas rodeo, who bashes gays and Jews, and who goes in search of “western girlies” for “chic-chat and sexytime.”
Given the growing list of lawsuits filed by the people appearing in the film, Borat raises the question about the ethics of capturing people in the act of being themselves. The long-standing tradition in comedy is that everything is fair game. But what about setting people up to mock themselves on an American feature film when they have been led to believe they’re participating in a documentary for Kazakhstan? Maybe one day we’ll read that the lawsuits are part of one big joke on all of us. But until then, it sure puts a bend in the laughter for me.
Did I laugh when I saw the film, you wonder? I didn’t laugh. I roared. And I shocked myself at the below-the-waist humor of my Inner Adolescent, especially by the naked-men-wrestling scene that will forever serve as a mass initiation into Extreme Comedy. Do I recommend Borat? Only with extreme caution. If you are armed with the knowledge that this is satire, that the anti-Semitic citizen of Kazakhstan is actually a British comedian of the Jewish faith who is jerking our chains and anything else he can get his hands on, and that he will squeeze the laughter out of you until you can’t breathe and take you where few movie audiences have been, then maybe you’re ready.