Sacha Baron Cohen is a very smart man. Sure, he is as an entertainer, but for a moment let’s pause in recognition of the man as an unparalleled hellraiser of popular culture. Known to most as Ali G, or more recently as Borat, the wide-eyed Kazakh journalist who roams America coast to coast, Cohen has been a force in television for some time. Now he’s suddenly taken Hollywood by storm, and if his comfort with the new role is any indication, he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.

Angela Cesere
Nothing we are going to say is funnier than what he was actually saying, so why bother? (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

The debut feature of one of his most, um, beloved personalities, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” or as the kids are calling it, just “Borat,” has been heralded as everything from the funniest movie of the year to (in a particularly absurd case of hyperbole) the funniest movie ever made. Don’t for a second think that’s because it actually is. In truth, the film, surprisingly uneventful and small in scale, clocks in at 84 minutes of very studied goofball comedy. What makes the movie remarkable is the extent to which Cohen has turned it from irreverent satire into one of the most extravagantly hyped, worshipped films in memory – all before anyone had even seen it. Between the YouTube clips and Cohen’s one-man variety act giving interviews in character across the country, the blitz surrounding “Borat” requires the kind of media and studio cooperation that can only be the work of Cohen, who has taken a mostly traditional gross-out comedy and made it into the moviegoing event of the fall.

Is the movie funny? Of course it is. If theaters ran the trailer on loop across the country the movie still have would been funny. The problem here is not Cohen’s talent for comedy, which is not in question, but his ability to balance the movie’s mouth-foaming desire to expose the ignorance of middle America with its equally ravenous desire to have a 350-pound man rub his naked ass into another man’s face. That scene, in outrageously graphic and overlong form, is the centerpiece of “Borat,” and it is funny if only for the fact that the performers actually seem to have a good time executing it. The problem is that it’s paired with sequences, like, say, one in which Borat’s declaration to a rodeo crowd that his nation supports the American desire to kill every man, woman and child in Iraq is met with continuous applause. Cohen, if he is half as smart as his act suggests, wants us to be shocked by this. So why present it in the one genre of film designed precisely so that no one will take it seriously?

Surely the film is effective in its central aim – exposing and exploiting Americans’ ignorance about others and, surprisingly, themselves – but at the same time, it’s content with ending such a sequence with a sight gag about Borat’s manhood. The film’s collection of gun-shop owners and frat boys and rodeo chiefs say just about every last thing Cohen wants them to, and their responses are stunningly bigoted. To its credit, the film’s obvious caricature of Kazakhstan – which, in case anyone forgot, is a real country – distances itself from an actual representation of it, and Cohen knows just how far he has to push a joke to get an effective punchline. He takes nothing further than it needs to go. He doesn’t offend just to offend; there’s a political point to be made in most every sequence here, even if it is easy and irrelevant, which it often is. But the idea of a narrative inescapably clashes with the idea of bite-size satire, and the political potency of Borat as a character is lost in a feature-length context.

And so, strangely enough, the film works best as a narrative. Borat can throw money at a Jewish couple in defense of his life, talk about executing gay men and tout a woman’s smaller brain size, and still – curiously, paradoxically – we love this guy. When he brings a prostitute to a dinner party with a pastor and his like-minded friends, Borat is the least cruel person in the room. Truth be told, and against all odds, he’s kind of sweet. His unrequited love for Pamela Anderson seems genuine. Perhaps the film’s most unrecognized suggestion is that Borat’s total obliviousness to his surroundings is the product of an environment that has created it – one not unlike the culture he encounters on his coast-to-coast road trip through America.

“Borat’s” failings as a film for the most part will not occur to its audience, who will no doubt explode at its jokes all the same. There is a very strong chance that said jokes will be lost on most of them – a concern even 20th Century Fox seemed to have in regulating the film’s initial release mostly to urban and college-town centers. Since it’s unfair to either party to judge a movie based on its audience, the question becomes one of whether “Borat” encourages its viewers to delight in the hate it subversively seeks out, and the film makes no indication that it does. For the most part, Cohen lets the bigotry he finds speak for itself, and even if it is often lost in the mix, his point in doing so is always clear.

In its first weekend the film has been a sensation, a commercial hit big enough to be a case study and (according to IMDb.com) an audience favorite intense enough to already sit comfortably among users’ top 250 movies of all time. It has a 90 on Metacritic for Christ’s sake. (That’s three points short of “Schindler’s List” and six points higher than “Mystic River,” in case you were wondering.)

In short, this is the biggest success story of any film since “The Passion of the Christ,” the implications of which I’ll leave for you to decipher. What I take from all this is that Sacha Baron Cohen very much knows what he’s doing, and even when his film doesn’t quite work, we’re in the hands of some kind of master.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
At the Showcase and Quality 16
20th Century Fox

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