I'll give actor Sacha Baron Cohen this much: he's absolutely fearless.
Borat Sagdiyev is one of Cohen's three clueless characters that rose to cult fame during the "Da Ali G Show" run on HBO in America. While Ali G was a dense wankster and fashion designer Bruno merely pushed his homosexuality on the fearful, Borat was an entirely different animal that could hardly be fully realized in the 10-minute segments he was offered on the show.
Borat is the host of a very popular Kazakhstan culture television show and king of his village (his sister is the 4th best prostitute in town). When his channel orders him to visit America to observe life, Borat is elated and takes off to the states with his producer, the immense Azamat (Ken Davitan). During an interview spree in New York City, Borat spies the ample charms of Pamela Anderson and her "water panties" on a "Baywatch" rerun, and decides immediately to quit his assignment and head to California where he hopes to meet this Malibu goddess.
In the maddeningly underrated 2002 feature film, "Ali G Indahouse," Cohen attempted to break one of his most famous characters out of the mock interview mold to create a world for him to interact with. I thought it worked magnificently, but watch "Borat," and you sense that Cohen wanted to keep the cinema experience closer to the TV world for this second attempt.
Corralled…er, directed by Larry Charles, "Borat" plays like it does on the small screen: Borat, armed with a camera crew, invades the life of unknowing Americans under the guise of a harmless interview for Kazakhstan television. Generally, the discussions end in one of three ways: the subject is either infuriated, perplexed, or reveals an inner darkness in a way that Cohen has turned into some kind of art form. One of the many jokes is that Borat, as a proud Kazakhstan citizen, hates Gypsies, Jews, and women, and sniffs around the subjects to see if they agree.
"Borat" hits the comedy jackpot when Cohen mischievously horses around with his subjects: pushing a driving instructor too far with his road rage and drinking, upsetting a lesson in dinner party etiquette when he invites a rotund African-American hooker as his guest, or giggling during a meeting of the Veteran Feminists of America. Cohen is a troublemaker, but he never breaks character, and that's the bliss of the film. He pushes and pushes these people in progressively more outrageous ways, and you almost want to wager on when they'll cave and ask Borat to leave or, in some cases, call the cops on him. There are only so many cheek kisses a straight American male will take before they refuse Borat. The twinkle in Cohen's eye comes when he finds that precise moment when the situation coils into the right pucker of sour.
The sublime moments of "Borat" come slithering out when Cohen is able to crack people open and get them to divulge prejudices normally kept tight to the chest. The comedy in these brief moments is found in the way people react to Borat's raging, but oddly kind-hearted, hatred. At a gun shop, when Borat asks for the best weapon to kill Jews, the clerk doesn't bat an eye and quickly recommends a powerful, gold-plated handgun. At a rodeo, Borat gets a cowboy to open up about his wish for the death of all homosexuals. Cohen's goal is slack-jawed laughter, but he also delights in Borat's ability to find that subversive sting of American culture limitations using his honed pitch of infantile patriotism, presented behind the scrim of an oblivious foreigner.
After a first-rate, if familiar, 30-minute opener, "Borat" switches over into a road movie, as the reporter, his producer, and a bear hit the interstates in an ice cream truck on their way to Malibu. The segments here are more scripted and crude, but in devastatingly hilarious ways. Here we watch Borat hitch a ride with drunken fratboys, engage in an angry nude wrestling match with his producer, and, in the film's most unreal moment of absurdity and comedy, stop by a bed & breakfast owned by…gasp…Jews. That slow burn look on Borat's face as he comes to this horrific realization is almost worth the price of admission alone.
If "Borat" plays it a little more safely than the Ali G film, it does so with enough confidence to consistently deliver immense laughs. "Borat" is an obscenely terrific comedic treasure of a film, and it furthers Cohen's agenda to reveal America's large collection of boobs and bigots, keeping the rest of us on our toes.