To know Borat is to love Borat, unless you’re from Kazakhstan.
Officials from that country have been up in arms over the outrageous buffoon played by Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” opening Friday. They say Borat Sagdiyev has muddied the Kazakh national identity.
But Borat—Cohen—isn’t making fun of Kazakhstan. He’s poking fun at America.
In the movie, Kazakh TV reporter Borat travels to New York with his producer, catches a rerun of “Baywatch” on TV, falls hopelessly in love with Pamela Anderson, and winds up making his way to California alone. The movie adds an emotional arc and offers a perspective on contemporary American society unlike any other. Directed by Larry Charles, the movie takes Borat on a series of cross-country adventures of the type that will be familiar to Cohen’s fans.
Borat was first developed for “Da Ali G Show,” which aired on HBO. In the show, Borat was one of three characters, along with the mock-rapper Ali G and gay Austrian fashion reporter Bruno. The 35-year-old actor is planning to follow “Borat” with “Bruno.”
Though Cohen has appeared in Will Ferrell’s “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and provided a voice for the animated “Madagascar,” he has almost never appeared in public out of character.
On the commentary track to the DVDs for the first season of “Da Ali G Show,” Cohen offered insight into the creation of Borat, who he said was influenced by someone he met in southern Russia.
“I can’t remember his name—he was a doctor,” Cohen said. “The moment I met him, I was totally crying. He was a hysterically funny guy, albeit totally unintentionally.”
Regular viewers of “Da Ali G Show” watched Borat plumb the mysteries of American house-buying, dating, etiquette, wine-tasting, campaigning, target- shooting, country music singing and baseball, to name but a few. His encounters with average, small-town Americans are gems of fish-out-of-water buffoonery.
Cohen has a gift for physical comedy and an inspired sense of the absurd and can turn something as mundane as accepting a stemmed wineglass into an absurdly protracted and awkward exchange.
Borat’s interviews fall into roughly two categories. He seeks out “life coaches”—people whose job it is to tell others how to date, tell jokes, find work, etc. He barrages them with questions, requests and opinions that, despite being completely outrageous, consistently fail to get a rise or a reaction stronger than “We don’t do that here in America.”
On one hand, you have to admire his interviewees’ tact and even keel. On the other, you can’t believe that they don’t react more strongly than they do.
He also hangs out with “normal people” who happily reveal their prejudices. Shopping for a house, Borat asks a real estate agent about a windowless room with a metal door for his mentally disabled brother and whether he may bury his wife in the yard if she dies.
And he does all of it in a wide-eyed, kiss-you-on-the-cheek, “America is No. 1” way that lowers everybody’s guard.
In promoting the film, Cohen has not wavered in presenting himself as Borat—be it in interviews, at movie premieres or on his thorough “MySpaces” page. He’s managed to keep his private life a mostly blank slate. It’s known, though, that the British comedian is an observant Jew who attended the University of Cambridge, where he wrote his thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil rights movement, and he and his fiance, Isla Fisher from “Wedding Crashers,” are planning a traditional Jewish wedding.
Though “Borat” has received a great deal of publicity, 20th Century Fox said last week that research indicated the film wasn’t catching on. The studio decided to scale down this week’s opening to about 800 theaters, planning to expand to 2,200 theaters later.
Still, Borat appears to be relishing his moment in the sun, angering people in Kazakhstan while he searches for—as his MySpace profile advertises— “Western girlies for chitchat and sexytime.”