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Taking stupid seriously

In `Cultural Learnings,' jaw-dropping prejudice flows from our mouths into a faux-Kazakh's ear.

October 15, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

AMERICANS who know Borat love Borat. They love him more than the government of Kazakhstan officially hates him. At an advance MySpace screening of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" at the Century City mall, the crowd was punchy with anticipation and queue-fatigue. My friends reacted to the news that I was going like Grandpa Joe after Charlie's discovery of the Golden Ticket. Meanwhile, Kazakh officials, none of whom camped out for passes at the multiplex, have been up in arms over the outrageous buffoon who has usurped their national identity in the American media. Ironically, Kazakhstan has nothing to worry about as far as Borat is concerned. We're the ones who should be nervous.

For the uninitiated, Borat Sagdiyev is a gawky, overeager Kazakh TV reporter in a bad suit and worse mustache who travels across the United States doing light lifestyle pieces. Neither really Kazakh nor really real, he is the second-most-famous alter ego of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, whose most famous character, the pea-brained "gangsta" interviewer Ali G, has all but famoused himself into oblivion. (It's harder to book Boutros Boutros-Ghali or Newt Gingrich after their handlers finally catch on that a guy who asks Sam Donaldson "Does you remember when two journalists brought down the government over the scandal of 'Waterworld?' " can't be for real.)

Crass, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and outrageously impolitic, Borat's cluelessness about how other countries live, talk and think is rivaled only by his ability to sniff out grandiloquence and prejudice. Though they have traits in common -- notably their encyclopedic ignorance and obliviousness to social norms -- Borat is more likable than Ali G. For one thing, he would rather be liked than respected or admired, and his innocence makes his satire stealthy and powerful. If Ali G skewered all that is ridiculous about big media's obsession with "youth culture," from his own absurdly baroque persona to public figures so disconnected they can't spot a parody when it's right in their face, Borat goes after bigger game. The idea, ostensibly, is to extract lessons in sophistication from the most powerful country on Earth for export to a country most Americans couldn't locate on a map. But the outcome is somehow never quite what it should be. He ventures deep into unmediated America, spot-tests some big, surprisingly ambitious sociological theories, then wrestles a fat guy naked.

In the movie, which opens Nov. 3, 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. I won't say much more about it other than it follows the basic format of the TV episodes, 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 fans.

Over the last couple of seasons, regular viewers of "Da Ali G Show" have 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, Southerners more often than not, 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.

Cohen has been compared to Peter Sellers, and like Sellers' most famously inept, terminally unaware characters, he knows how to shatter composure with frustration and lower defenses with absurdity. By pretending to exist entirely outside civilized discourse -- actually, by pretending never to have heard of it -- Borat slays inhibitions like cheap tequila. But what makes the awkward adventures of the fake Kazakh so startling is that though he may be fake, the nice people he so effortlessly prods into revealing their not-so-nice sides are real. As Borat travels through the country like a half-deranged, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, sex-obsessed Huell Howser, the picture that emerges is strange and strangely consistent on what defines the American national character.

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Strangely taken in stride

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