November 1-7, 2006

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Twentieth-Century Fox
We support your war on terror: Borat brings a message of solidarity for a troubled nation.

Stranger in A Strange Land

'Borat' foists a faux foreigner on clueless Americans with high hilarity

By Richard von Busack

ULULATIONS and grainy stock footage whisk us away to a Kazakhstan of the mind. So begins Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, co-written by and starring the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. The cryptodocumentary is a spin-off from Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show. Borat Sagdiyev is the foreigner every cosmopolitan avoids—exuding that triple punch of almost panicky friendliness, bottomless lechery and backwardness. Borat, a skinny figure in a blindingly shiny suit, purports to be a celebrated Kazakh TV commentator. He's on a junket to the United States, first inflicting himself on New York and then the Deep South. Thwarted by circumstance, Borat finds a new mission: to meet and marry former Baywatch honey Pamela Anderson.

Borat pranks people who are rude, but such is the nature of comedy that the ones who are trying to be polite get it worse. Invited to sing our national anthem at a rodeo, Borat prefaces it with a message to our troops from Kazakhstan: "We support your war of terror" and then embroiders that good thought with Genghis Khan rhetoric. The gradual awakening of an auditorium full of suckers is the funniest thing onscreen in long, long memory.

Cohen is a remarkable physical comedian—the kind that comes along once in years. This wasn't apparent in Talladega Nights, where he did a French accent and performed a suite of Paleolithic homo jokes. Under Larry Charles' direction, he reveals Peter Sellers-level adroitness—for example, in the demolishing of an antique store. (The place seems to have been chosen for punishment because of its Confederate tendencies. You can see a bumper sticker reading "I Would Have Died With My Men at Appomattox.") But the masterstroke is a trans-Danubian naked wrassling match between Cohen and his morbidly obese producer, Azamat (Ken Davitian), a sequence so gross that it has a kind of grace.

It may have something to do with how crapped out we feel in the West that the movie traffics in the old comic trope of laughing at Slobovias, where the men are lecherous and filthy, and the women are barely sentient. Mostly, though, the barb of Borat ends up embedded in America's rump—so many of our citizens are lured out on the ledge by this bizarre foreign pigeon only to plummet eight stories for our amusement.

But Borat is barely cinematic—a chain of Candid Camera moments linked by a little road-movie plot. And the film lacks the warmth that was present in Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, even if Borat must be acclaimed as far funnier.

As a comedy of manners, Borat overlooks the traditional American problem of dealing with strangers with extreme opinions. In the now-celebrated gun-store incident, where Borat tries to purchases a gun to protect himself from Jews, he seemingly allows the cashier to reveal anti-Semitic opinions. Yet the store owner may just be letting the words pass without comment. (And Borat doesn't get his gun, anyway.) Personally, if I had challenged every weirdo I encountered when I was working behind a counter, I would have been fired even quicker than I was from the various McJobs I've held over the years.

I have read extreme claims for Borat, calling it a breakthrough political documentary. But how well will it stand up to repeat viewings? The film plays like an exploding cigar—once the surprise wears off, all you have is a bunch of burnt, scattered flakes, like the flakes onscreen here. Still, if the true meaning of the phrase "global cinema" is that more people get to see BloodRayne, then treating Kazakhstan as the sinkhole of the world is a little raw. If Borat made my sides ache, it also made my conscience throb. Consider the following as a PSA for Kazakh film.

For instance, in 2003, we all missed "Stars Above Almaty," the first national festival of Kazakh films. According to Vladimir Padunov, the fest screened every film produced in Kazakhstan in 1998-2003, if to sometimes painful effect. There were two children's films, said Padunov, that were fit only for an audience of bound and gagged children. One was The Magical Sponsor, which sounds like a trans-Urals answer to Toy Story. Despite a putative "New Wave" in the late 1980s, this expert claims "recent Kazakh cinema is virtually unknown in Kazakhstan itself."

Another pair of commentators, Ruth and Archie Perlmutter, covered the 23 Cinema Du Reel fest at the Beaubourg in Paris. These Texan observers quote a Kazakh producer, Assia Baigojina, who characterizes his nation's cinema as enduring "an explosion of suffering and despair." The Kazakh films listed here sound interesting: some documentary tales of ecocide, since the USSR used to test nukes in Kazakhstan. The Perlmutters mention a film by the "a great Kazakh master, Darejan Omirbaev." Having now made Borat the world's most famous Kazakh, it probably would be fair of Cohen to try to propagate a few of these no-doubt lost classics.

Movie Times Borat (R; 82 min.), directed by Larry Charles, written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Beter Baynham and Dan Mazer, photographed by Anthony Hardwick and Luke Geissbühler and starring Cohen, opens Nov. 3.

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