Bright Lights, Big Goofball

by Ed Symkus & r & & r & Borat & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & here are some films that are, as Hollywood folks like to call them, review-proof. They could be urban action-dramas or movies based on video games or perhaps some coming-of-age piece of fluff that has a target audience -- inner-city men, videogame nuts, teenage girls -- that will go to the film no matter how many critics have their thumbs pointed down.

Borat is such a film ... sort of. But wait, let's get the whole title in: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. If you haven't heard of it, you're just not hip enough. If you have heard of it, and have been salivating over its impending release, I've got two words for ya: Worth it.

For the uninitiated, Borat Sagdiyev is but one of a truly odd bunch of characters created by British actor Sacha Baron Cohen. My introduction to this gentleman from Kazakhstan, where he wears a gray suit and serves as a television journalist, was on Cohen's HBO series Da Ali G Show.

The tall, gangly Cohen presents Borat as a reporter who is clueless about anything non-Kazakhstani. He knows only his own backward Eurasian country. He is racist, misogynistic and loud. But he's also very curious. In the film, he and a TV producer named Azamat (Ken Davitian) head to the great and wondrous America to pick up a few ideas on how to better their own decrepit country.

If this is still all new to you, know this: It's a joke, a big, raucous joke, in which no punches are pulled and nothing is sacred. Cohen and Davitian play it to the hilt, never breaking character. Of course, a statement like that shouldn't be necessary; characters are never supposed to break character.

The deal here is that Borat is presented as a documentary. These two guys are pulling off this racist-misogynistic-loud shtick on a road trip across the States -- and they're dealing with real people who have no idea what's going on.

So here's Borat on a New York subway, trying to make new friends (apparently in Kazakhstan, it's done by kissing). There's Borat at a rodeo in Salem, Va., where he's gotten permission to sing the national anthem, but mangles it, badly, and manages to work in some breathtaking stabs at George W. Bush. People on the subway either run from him or swear at him; people at the rodeo want to lynch him.

There are key points in the film where you have to wonder if Cohen-Borat is going to make it alive through what turns out to be a road trip all the way to California.

The result is quite possibly the funniest movie I have ever seen. But the type of humor on display demands an audience -- hopefully not stuck-up conservative types who can't take a joke. (The joke being that the unwitting targets on display who get Borat's ill manners heaped on them are people who definitely deserve them.)

At any rate, when I saw Borat a few weeks ago, it was at a packed preview screening with about 600 other people (all of whom "got it"). There are some funny incest jokes, some goofy animal scenes, those New Yorkers running away from Borat's puckered mouth and much more (some of it revolving around Pamela Anderson!).

But there's a moment where something that happens onscreen causes a reaction in the audience that I've never experienced before -- and I'll bet that it happens wherever this shows on the undoubtedly crowded opening weekend (except maybe in Virginia). Do not fear, I'll give nothing away. But before seeing this, you might want to rent the 1969 Ken Russell film Women in Love, which features a racy, revealing, and rather classy nude wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates.

Then go to see Borat. When said scene begins, then goes spinning on and on, you will forget about Women in Love, forever. When it happened at my screening, people were crying as a result of laughing -- tears running down both sides of faces. There were gasps for breath -- too much laughter, not enough inhaling. I am not exaggerating.

Yet (and I still find this hard to believe) the film also has an absolutely serious edge. Within the craziness of the central character's racist tendencies (all done innocently and ignorantly, not maliciously), Cohen somehow manages to switch things around, to trick many of the Americans he meets into revealing their own virulent racism. It's a remarkable piece of business which leads me to comfortably say that Borat is a work of genius by both Cohen and director Larry Charles (Curb Your Enthusiasm). I've never seen anything like it. Even if there are bad reviews on opening weekend, it's going to be the number one film in the country. Then again, there might not be any bad reviews.

(worth $8)Rated R

Directed by Larry Charles

Starring Sacha Baron Cohen

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