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With: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian, Pamela Anderson
Written by: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips
Directed by: Larry Charles
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language
Running Time: 82
Date: 08/03/2006

Borat (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cultural Benefits

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I laughed and laughed during a recent screening of Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat -- subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan -- but I assumed it would be the kind of laughter that quickly faded. I was wrong; the more I considered Borat, the better and funnier it grew. Sure, it contains enough dumb, Jackass-type humor to keep an army of frat boys in stitches, but it's also a clever satire and unquestionably the best mock documentary since This Is Spinal Tap (1984).

Cohen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Borat, a television personality in Kazakhstan. Along with his portly, hairy producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), he ventures to the United States to learn about its culture in the hopes of bringing some positive change to his home country (though he never explains why; to him, Kazakhstan is already the greatest nation on earth). After a short time in New York, he discovers American television and falls in love with Pamela Anderson on "Baywatch." Thus begins a road trip to Los Angeles so that he can propose marriage to his new beloved.

The movie contains the usual road-trip jokes, such as gunning down the road to the tune of Steppenwolf in the most ridiculous vehicle the writers could think of (this time it's an old ice cream truck). And it also comes with the expected lowbrow stuff, embodied in the truly horrifying but screamingly funny sequence in which Borat and Azamat wrestle, naked, over the possession of a "Baywatch" fan magazine.

But where Borat veers into greatness is in its depiction of America's cultural differences, as seen from the outside in. Many will be horrified and enraged by the film's portrayal of anti-Semitism, but these moments are so uniformly outrageous and unreasonable, that anyone who actually is anti-Semitic may think twice. In one sequence, we witness the Kazakhstani "Running of the Jews," in which actors wearing monstrous costumes (complete with horns) chase the locals. In another, Borat and Azamat unexpectedly find themselves checked into a bed and breakfast owned by a nice, old Jewish couple. They become convinced that their lives are in danger; when two cockroaches skitter under the door, our travelers assume that the old couple has used their shape-shifting powers and are preparing to attack.

Borat also approaches a group of black teenagers and asks (like many other Americans) how he can dress and act more like them. Scenes involving a traveling band of drunken frat boys and an extremely conservative church play as if someone has pulled up a rock and revealed a previously unseen squirmy underbelly (in many ways, Borat is more frightening and hits closer to the mark than the recent documentary Jesus Camp).

With his previous incarnation, Ali G, Cohen interviewed unsuspecting rubes ("Candid Camera" style) and ridiculed them through his performance. One gets the impression that Borat is filled with people who do not recognize Cohen and are not in on the joke. This duplicity is not particularly funny in itself, but by adding in the aforementioned layers of cultural confusion, he has hit upon a brilliant new combo.

Thankfully, Cohen manages to keep the jokes flying well into the film's final third, which most modern comedies, including his own previous Ali G Indahouse, fail to do. He has thoughtfully chosen a good director, Larry Charles, whose very odd 2003 film Masked and Anonymous certainly did not follow any boring rules, and whose innovative television work ("Seinfeld," "Mad About You," "The Tick," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Entourage," etc.) continues to inspire.

Unlike many of this year's self-important political documentaries, Borat actually has the power to show the ridiculousness of our current social and political behavior. Can they award the Nobel Prize to a fictional character?

DVD Details: I was impressed by how funny the film was the second time around, and also how much clearly it gelled as a satire. Fox's 2007 DVD comes with lots of deleted scenes, many of them just as funny (or offensive) as the material that made the final cut. There are a couple of other brief extras, which leads me to believe that a 2-disc "special edition" is likely sometime in the near future.

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