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"BORAT"
(2006) (Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: Two foreign documentary filmmakers take a cross-country trip across the U.S. to find out what makes America great.
PLOT:
Borat Sagdiyev (SACHA BARON COHEN) is a citizen of his native Kazakhstan who's proud of his local village and sister who's the fourth best prostitute there, but is enamored with all things American. Accordingly, he sets out to travel to the United States and make a documentary for his government -- with producer Azamat Bagatov (KEN DAVITIAN) -- showing what makes America great. With neither fluent in English or American cultural ways, they shock and anger the locals when they arrive in New York City and start interacting with them and exhibit their misogynist, racist and homophobic tendencies.

After Borat catches a rerun of "Baywatch" on his hotel TV, he becomes enamored with Pamela Anderson and -- upon learning and being happy about his wife's recent demise back home -- decides they should travel to Los Angeles to find her. Accordingly, they set out on a road trip that takes them across the country where they meet a wide cross-section of Americans who show their true colors to these two foreign documentary filmmakers.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Ever since the world's first comedian -- Og the caveman -- decided to make fun of his in-laws by doing a caricature-laced portrayal of them, such entertainers have followed suit down through the ages. Alas, Og's performance was met by his father-in-law's club, which showed the dangers of such humor and put an end to the caveman's career -- and life.

Of course, not everyone who's followed in his knuckle-dragging footsteps has been met with the same reaction. Some comedians know how far they can push their audiences and thus keep the stereotypes and caricatures carefully reigned in. Others, however, constantly push the limits through their creations, sometimes taking their performance too far in search of laughs and/or how much they can get a rise out of people.

One such comedian was Andy Kaufman, best known for playing the immigrant cab driver on the old sitcom "Taxi." While that character was sweet and benign (if often culturally confused), some of the actor's other creations pushed people's buttons to the point that violence eventually ensued (including a famous run-in with an angry professional wrestler). Then again, it was sometimes hard to tell how much of those reactions were real, and how many were just part of the act.

Taking a cue from Kaufman, British entertainer Sacha Baron Cohen has made a living -- and a building reputation for himself -- doing similar shtick. And most of that's been done on his TV program "Da Ali G Show" (begun in the U.K. and then imported to the U.S. on HBO) where he's created a number of flamboyant characters, most designed to rile up his viewers -- when not supposedly leaving them in stitches -- by their controversial behavior.

Now one of them has escaped from the "telly" to the big screen in "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." That, of course, would be Borat Sagdiyev, the East European second cousin to Kaufman's Latka who's enamored with all things American but doesn't see anything wrong with his crude, misogynist, and anti-Semite way of looking at, explaining and exploring the world around him.

For those who don't get him or the act, both the character on the show and now in his first feature length films are all about satirizing such people and attitudes. A Jew, some of his most pointed humor is directed at his own people. One scene here depicts the "Running of the Jews" in his hometown where the inhabitants run away in mock terror from people dressed in huge, bobble-head type, stereotypical garb.

He doesn't stop there, however, also doing aggressive riffs on women (particularly regarding them as nothing more than sexual objects), blacks, American rednecks, Evangelicals and more, but in that same sort of naive foreigner way that takes a little sting out of the barbs. Some of it's funny, much of it's stupid, and a lot of it's gross. Yet, whether he takes such material too far -- in satirizing the real people who act and think those ways -- will rest squarely with viewers' reactions and perceptions of what constitutes comedy vs. bad taste.

The plot is simple, with Cohen and writers Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer penning the story for director Larry Charles (best known for writing many episodes of "Seinfeld" and other TV shows). Baron's Borat travels from his homeland of Kazakhstan -- with his trusty producer Azamat (a game Ken Davitian) -- to make a documentary about America. Arriving in the Big Apple, he then sets out for Hollywood when he becomes enamored with Pamela Anderson. He first sees her on a rerun of "Baywatch" and then in a commemorative magazine about the show that he picks up at a yard sale (where he thinks the woman running it is a gypsy who's shrunken another woman down into a Barbie doll type figure).

Accordingly, it's a fish out of water meets road trip tale, where Borat encounters and samples Americana while driving from New York to California. While some of the scenes are obviously staged with professional performers, others appear to be ad-libbed, somewhat akin to what the "Jackass" boys revel in by getting out with the masses, doing something disturbing or just embarrassing, and then letting the chips fall where they may.

The most notable of which is a sequence where Borat and Azamat get into a nude but nonsexual tussle over said Pamela Anderson magazine, with their bout making its way out of their hotel room, into the hallway, elevator, lobby and then what certainly looks like a real meeting of traditionally stuffy and conservative banker types. It's crude, rude, and obnoxious, but depending on the level of male adolescence still left in you, also rather funny.

Another controversial comedian, Lenny Bruce, once said, "Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it." Baron certainly seems to agree with his look at racism, misogyny, and other social ills, but his satire might be too much like the real thing for some viewers (much like Archie Bunker way back when on "All in the Family").

His first feature film is undeniable funny at times if you can go along with the joke, and Cohen never breaks character, thus making the creation slightly endearing in a weird sort of way. Yet, it's also a hit or miss affair where one's appreciation lies squarely with his or her acceptance of the comedian's outrageous and repetitive characterizations. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 18, 2006 / Posted November3, 2006


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