The art of provocation has a new grandmaster. Sacha Baron Cohen had already made an unforgettable mark in the annals of satirical impersonation with his wonderfully clueless rude-boy Ali G, a creature who now looks almost well-adjusted next to Baron Cohen's latest small-to-big-screen incarnation of ignorance. Borat Sagdiyev, a television reporter from a small village in Kazakhstan, has such a narrow view of humankind it could be passed off as a chronic form of naivety; unfortunately, it's a naivety based on a hatred of Jews, gypsies, gays and most of the neighbouring republics in the former Soviet Union.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan instantly sets its level of offensiveness toxically high. When Borat is seen happily commentating on the village ceremony of Running the Jew - like the locals running bulls in Pamplona - the shock of it is not much diminished by the knowledge that Baron Cohen himself is Jewish. What further outrages of taste and decency await? We find out, as Borat and his morbidly obese producer arrive in New York to make a documentary about America. At first the jokes are mild fish-out-of-water stuff, with Borat agog at the unimagined luxuries of Western living (he steps into the hotel elevator and begins to unpack, believing it's his room) or startling passers-by on the street who indignantly fight him off when he tries to kiss them. A visit to a "humour coach" to learn how to tell jokes leaves both teacher and pupil in a state of bafflement, though it left me doubled up with laughter.
Once Borat hits the road for Los Angeles - after seeing a rerun of Baywatch he conceives the idea of marrying Pamela Anderson - the cruel genius of Baron Cohen and his writers is given full rein. If their only intention was to make us chortle at Borat's absurdly offensive bigotry, they'd already be on to a winner. Yet a deeper scheme is at work, for the real interest lies in how closely that bigotry conforms to a certain American mindset. At a rodeo in Virginia, Borat first listens to a leathery old cowpoke advising him to shave off his moustache to make him look less Muslim, then strides out into the middle of the ring to address the highly partisan crowd. This is where Baron Cohen really shows his nerve: Borat, using a bullhorn, praises Bush's "war of terror" and expresses the hope that Iraq will be bombed so comprehensively that "even the lizards" will die. The crowd applauds uncertainly, but their cheers turn to boos when Borat starts singing a ridiculous Kazakh "national anthem" to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" - they've finally twigged that this guy might just be taking the piss. Such is the atmosphere of outraged astonishment that a rodeo rider just behind Borat takes a dramatic tumble, an unscheduled moment of pure hilarity that must have had the film-makers hugging themselves. The press notes inform us that, after this débâcle, the film crew's van was besieged by a lynch mob of furious rodeo hands.
Borat is contemptible, yet one would have to be quite po-faced not to find him rather amiable too. Resplendent in Eighties-vintage grey suit and skinny tie, Baron Cohen plays this monster of gaucherie with an energy and delight ("Is naice!") that utterly scramble your reactions: as he proceeds along his journey of discovery, you don't know whether to lower your head in your hands or throw it back and roar. When he was at an Atlanta dinner table, I had to look away as he introduced a prostitute to a party of genteel etiquette specialists, but at the born-again Christian convention, where he submits himself to an impromptu exorcism, his hosts behave with an abandon more embarrassing than even Borat could muster.
Time and again, Borat's escapades prompt utter amazement at how easily he has taken in his hosts: is it their gullibility, or is it his plausibility? At times I felt almost sorry for the way that perfectly friendly Americans allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by this prankster: the spectacle of a good-natured being exploited isn't an unalloyed entertainment. At other times, the level of complicity between hoaxer and hoaxed opens a disconcerting vista of possibilities. When Borat asks a firearms salesman, "What is the best gun to defend against Jew?" the reply comes back instantly, "That'd be a 9mm or a .38", and you wonder: is this guy desperate for a sale or is he merely used to this standard of customer? Borat then treats us to his Clint Eastwood impersonation ("Dirty Harold", as he calls him), which is naturally as hopeless as all of his other conversational gambits.
This kind of guerrilla film-making carries its own sort of risk. It's no surprise to learn, for instance, that the film-makers were often tailed by the FBI on suspicion of being terrorists. Baron Cohen must have had a good getaway driver to avoid arrest. At a time when US national security and popular paranoia are as taut as piano wire, a sense of humour is possibly best hidden in the glove compartment, next to the 9mm. I'm still not sure whether Anderson was in on the joke or not during her scene. If not, her reaction is understandable: the last thing you'd expect at your book signing ("A woman has written a book?" asks Borat, incredulous) is to be pinioned beneath a Kazakh marital rug and abducted. Better not to think too hard about how this wicked mockumentary works its tricks. Just book yourself a seat and be ready to laugh like a hyena. Is naice!Reuse content