One evening this summer, a number of Hollywood’s finest comedic minds gathered in a Los Angeles screening room to watch an early rough cut of a new comedy, awkwardly titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The audience, which included legendary stand-up comic Garry Shandling, Simpsons writer George Meyer, 40 Year-Old Virgin director Judd Apatow, and Curb Your Enthusiasm star-creator Larry David, thought they were just there to offer the filmmakers a little helpful feedback. When the movie ended and the lights came up, everyone realized they’d just seen something totally original, perhaps even revolutionary. Capturing the sense of collective astonishment, Meyer turned to Apatow and said, ”I feel like someone just played me Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time.”
At first glance, Borat, which opens in theaters on Nov. 3, looks like some weird foreign public-access TV show that has inexplicably found its way onto the big screen. Shot in deliberately crummy-looking video, it’s a faux documentary about a TV reporter from Kazakhstan named Borat Sagdiyev, who embarks on a journey across America for the supposed edification of his audience back home. In his travels, Borat encounters a wide range of real-life Americans: Wall Street power brokers, political leaders, Pentecostal churchgoers, genteel Southern ladies, Pamela Anderson. Oblivious to American notions of decorum and political correctness, he cheerfully says appallingly inappropriate and offensive things at every turn in his unique brand of broken English, punctuating them with overeager exclamations: ”I like!” ”Hi-five!” ”Very nice!” ”Sexytime!” He mangles the national anthem at a Virginia rodeo. He releases a chicken on a crowded New York subway car. He brings a prostitute to a posh Southern society dinner. Some people are charmed by the seemingly innocent Kazakh bumpkin. Others are simply baffled. Some are outraged to the point of calling the cops. None seem to have the slightest idea that it’s all a complete and total put-on: Smile, you’re on Kazakh Kamera!
For the uninitiated, the Borat character is the creation of 34-year-old British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, first introduced to a wide American audience in 2003 on the cult HBO comedy series Da Ali G Show. In each Ali G episode, Baron Cohen interviewed unsuspecting subjects in the guise of one of his three alter egos: Ali G, a dim-witted wannabe gangsta rapper/TV journalist; Brüno, a flamboyant Austrian fashion reporter; and the bigoted, horny, anti-Semitic, and yet strangely likable, Borat. Now, with the Borat movie, Baron Cohen has exploded the clueless-foreigner shtick into a wild, mostly improvised 89-minute road movie, creating one of the most elaborate and audacious pranks ever put on film.
In the past few months, the buzz around Borat has been steadily building. Reports from test screenings make them sound like tent revivals, with audiences convulsing with laughter, covering their eyes, and screaming out loud at the blend of merciless satire and over-the-top slapstick comedy, which includes a truly eyeball-searing scene of Borat wrestling in the nude with his obese sidekick, Azamat (character actor Ken Davitian). Following the film’s debut at Cannes — which featured the spectacle of Baron Cohen, as Borat, strolling along the Croisette in a neon green thong — the fervor reached a climax at this year’s Toronto film festival, where, despite a projector malfunction 12 minutes into its screening, Borat earned a rapturous reception, overshadowing more sober-minded Oscar bait.
Of course, not everyone shares a fondness for this kind of cringe-inducing humor.