For once, you can believe the hype. Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat movie really is the funniest film of the year, and by quite some way. Those of us who remembered the only mildly amusing Ali G Indahouse and had our doubts can sigh with relief. Fortunately Borat isn't nearly as well known as Ali G was in 2002 so Cohen has been able to do what he does best: have the character interact with real people in the real world.
Subtitled "Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan", Borat follows the title character, a Kazakhstani TV personality, on a visit to America. He's there to make a documentary in New York but a chance viewing of Baywatch on his hotel's cable TV changes everything. Borat falls madly in love with its star, Pamela Anderson and he drags his gruff producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) on a cross-country road trip to find Ms Anderson and make her his virgin bride.
On the way, Borat stops to interview the locals and investigate various aspects of American life. These segments, which involve real people who think Borat is a real TV personality, provide the comic meat of the film. Yes, it's more or less the same thing Borat has done on Da Ali G Show but the material here is consistently first rate, a good few notches above the TV sketches. It's arguably the funniest work Cohen has ever done, even surpassing his early Ali G stuff.
The character is an ingenious creation - at once a likeable, backward innocent and a depraved lunatic with every prejudice and superstition under the sun (he carries gypsies' tears to protect him from AIDS). He's funny on his own but what's even funnier is the way people react to him, whether they believe him to be a genuine foreign journalist or just a nutcase on the street.
The film reaches its comic crescendo about two thirds of the way through, with a polite dinner party whose guests Borat outrages in every way imaginable and then with an absolutely unforgettable scene involving Borat and Azamat, which I will not spoil. At this point, my chest was actually hurting, I'd laughed so much. It could be argued the film peaks too early. The last half hour, while still funny, is a little bit anticlimactic. Of course, to say a comedy makes you laugh too much, too soon is not exactly the harshest criticism that's ever been made and besides, by the last half hour, you may be relieved to have a chance to recover your breath.
The format of a feature film, protected by a 15 rating, allows Cohen to push the boundaries further than he could on television and he's taken full advantage of it. This may be the most politically incorrect film ever made. Regardless of your personal opinions, if you're the sort of person who is easily offended, or just the sort of person who enjoys climbing on your high horse, Borat has something to offend you: sexual jokes, scatological jokes, graphic nudity (and I don't mean pleasant graphic nudity!), religious jokes and lashings of racial humour.
The racial jokes will raise the most eyebrows. They go way, way beyond anything you'll have ever seen in a mainstream comedy. Borat is a raving bigot who hates Jews, gypsies and the citizens of his country's hated neighbour, Uzbekhistan. He voices these prejudices at great length - often to interviewees who don't seem terribly fazed by them!
But Sacha Baron Cohen isn't targeting anyone or spreading any kind of dubious message, he's just busting taboos and tipping over sacred cows. Why? Because it's healthier to laugh at these things than get worked up about them and let them divide us. Also, because it's funny.
The jokes are aimed in every possible direction. Borat's victims include evangelical Christians, black teenagers, southern high society, drunken students, veteran feminists and the crowd at a rodeo. No one can say they're being singled out, except perhaps Americans, although I suspect most will appreciate the joke - they have more of a sense of humour about themselves and their country than they're given credit for. More often than not, Borat himself is the butt of the gags.
The character's racist diatribes, like Alf Garnett's, are always funny at the expense of the character's ignorance. One of the film's standout scenes shows him and his producer terrified to be staying in the home of a kindly old Jewish couple, who they fear will kill them with their evil magic. At no point are the couple or their religion mocked - it's Borat's beliefs that are hysterical. And since Cohen is a practising Jew, he can hardly be accused of antisemitism.
The government of Kazakhstan believes the whole film is a racist joke at the expense of their country. OK, they have a point but I'd argue that the portrayal of Kazakhstan (actually Romania) is so over the top and silly that it's hard to believe anyone could seriously believe this is what it's like. Would you believe Kazakhstani towns really have a village rapist?
As I write this last paragraph, the breaking news is that Borat has been a surprise blockbuster in America, making over $25 million in its opening weekend and outgrossing The Santa Clause 3, Flushed Away and Saw III despite playing on a third as many screens. The film's likely to do as well here. So it looks like our own Sacha Baron Cohen has just gone from stardom to superstardom. The downside of this is that Borat, like Ali G, will no longer be able to fool anyone. I wonder what Cohen has up his sleeve to replace him.
Last updated: 26/06/2018 19:14:44