Eyes wide, face fixed in an avid grin, Sacha Baron Cohen's ersatz Kazakh TV reporter, the ineffably oafish Borat Sagdiyev, goes looking for America. It's a documentary of sorts. The road trip -- he's afraid to fly "in case the Jews repeated their attack of 9/11" -- takes him from New York to Los Angeles (where he hopes to bag Pamela Anderson) by way of Mississippi, and well beyond the boundaries of taste.
America, the "greatest country in the world" per Borat, first appears as a subway car where the friendly Kazakh introduces himself to passengers and, as is his custom, attempts to double-kiss the men. Predictable agitation is trumped when Borat's cheap suitcase drops open to release a live chicken. The alert viewer may glimpse director Larry Charles among the startled commuters, but by and large, Baron Cohen's lumpen performance art -- replete with all manner of public display and daredevil idiocy -- is skilled at concealing its tracks. In the most spectacular example, Borat's bedroom tussle with his heavyset Kazakh producer (Ken Davitian) escalates into a naked chase down the hotel elevator, through the lobby and into a banquet of the local mortgage brokers' association.
Not simply a jackass, Borat (like Baron Cohen's earlier creation, Ali G) specializes in one-on-ones with unwary professionals, snared by their willingness to humor a hapless foreigner and desire to appear on (even Kazakh) TV. Stooges range from a self-identified humor consultant ("Do you ever laugh on people with retardation?" Borat wonders) to a car salesman (asked if the automobile is outfitted with a "pussy magnet") to a pair of pols, former Georgia representative Bob Barr and perennial candidate Alan Keyes. What did they know -- and when did they know it? Keyes realizes something before our eyes when, after a long, faux-naive account of a gay-pride rally, Borat says, "Are you telling me that the man who tried to put a rubber fist into my anus was a homosexual?"
How does Baron Cohen keep a straight face? If ever there was a movie that demanded a documentary devoted to its making, it's this one. (Press notes assert that the filmmakers were reported as terrorists and trailed by the FBI.) That both Barr and Keyes are right-wing moralizers suggests something about the Baron Cohen agenda. It's hardly coincidental that the antique store he trashes specializes in Confederate memorabilia.
Interviewing "veteran feminists" or Atlanta homies, Borat baffles them with his chauvinist stupidity. But picked up by a van of South Carolina frat boys or chatting with the owner of the Imperial Rodeo, he has alarmingly little difficulty getting them to articulate the idea of reinstituting slavery or making homosexuality a capital offense.
Baron Cohen has gleefully involved the government of Kazakhstan in a campaign against Borat -- showing up at the White House on the day President Bush hosted Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. But his target isn't really an imaginary version of Nazerbayev's nation (nor its enemies, the "evil nitwits" of Uzbekistan); it is rather the domain of the "great warlord Premier Bush," red states in particular. "I think the cultural differences are just vast," the Mississippi matron hosting Borat for dinner at her Magnolia Mansion (on Secession Drive) confides to the camera while her guest is away from the table. Those differences become unbridgeable when Borat returns with a stool sample, and then with the arrival of his indescribably inappropriate date -- recruited from the back-page ads of the local alt-weekly.
The movie's set piece has Borat -- wearing an American-flag shirt and looking like Saddam Hussein plugged into the wall -- entertaining a Virginia rodeo with his Kazakh version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Borat's introductory declaration of support for America's "war of terror" gets an ovation, his fervent wish that George Bush "drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq" a slightly less enthusiastic one. The crowd starts booing, however, when they hear him sing, "Kazakhstan is the great country in the world -- all other countries are run by little girls." (Borat manages to complete this anthem; a report in the Roanoke Times suggests that Baron Cohen and his crew had to be hustled out of the place before they were lynched.)
Indeed, the man who invented Borat is a masterful improviser, brilliant comedian, courageous political satirist and genuinely experimental film artist. Borat makes you laugh, but Baron Cohen forces you to think.