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(photo credit: 20th Century Fox)
It was a Hollywood premiere like any other - except that instead of limousines, many of the VIPs arrived by wagon, and instead of champagne, the drink of the night was fermented horse urine.
Mann's Chinese Theater last week rolled out the red carpet - or bales of hay, rather - for one of the first American screenings of Borat, a sharp-witted, filthy-minded satire that takes its racist, sexist hero from rural Kazakhstan across the United States in search of the title character's newfound love interest, former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson.
The film, which inspired impassioned laughter and spontaneous bursts of applause during a screening at the Haifa International Film Festival last month, may well end up Hollywood's biggest comedy hit of the year after it goes into wide release in the US and Europe this week. But no matter how it performs at the box office, Borat will almost certainly be the only film of 2006 whose anti-Semitic hero believes Jews have horns yet himself speaks nearly fluent Hebrew.
Borat, of course, is the critically acclaimed comic creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, the Cambridge-educated English Jew who's made an increasingly successful TV career lampooning hypocrisy and ignorance, especially when they're directed against women, gays, blacks and Jews. That his latest comic alter-ego actually speaks Hebrew between anti-Jewish slurs will be lost on most of Baron Cohen's global audience (which is led to think he's speaking Kazakh), but between the comedian's last name and the familiarity of his biography to a fanatical, rapidly expanding fan base, it's unlikely anyone will miss the satirical intent of his latest movie, the full name of which is the intentionally mangled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
The character, a well-meaning but hopelessly boorish central Asian TV journalist, has already earned condemnations from the Kazakh government, which sees in Borat all the worst stereotypes Western audiences might have about the former Soviet republic. (Though the country's official protests have largely played into Baron Cohen's hands, it's hard to blame Kazakh officials for expressing their anger: early in the film, the shabbily dressed title character French-kisses a woman who turns out to be his sister, then proudly introduces her as "number four prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan." Slightly later, he merrily introduces his audience to one of his homeland's national pastimes, a colorful tradition known as "the Running of the Jew.")
But while this pseudo-Kazakhstan may provide much of the film's early comic fodder, Borat's true target is the United States. Much of the film's humor is inspired by First World viewers' discomfort at their own ignorance about the distant but fully human universe Borat is meant to come from. One of Baron Cohen's running gags about his title character - who also starred on his English and American TV series - is the Kazakh journalist's burning hatred for neighboring Uzbekistan, a joke ultimately about the audience's inability to identify with someone who holds any sort of opinion whatsoever about that region of the world.
Some critics will inevitably allege that this sort of analysis gives Baron Cohen too much credit, and that Borat, which opens in Israel on November 30, is really intended just to mock the poverty, bigotry and lack of education among those unlucky enough not to live in the US or Europe. But assuming they're able to filter out the film's incest and bathroom jokes - and there are many - those same critics will be hard-pressed to explain the film's derisively unsubtle look at life from New York to Los Angeles. The country exposed in this hastily filmed mockumentary - in which most of the "characters" are real people unaware of Baron Cohen's satirical intent - is a smiling mix of chauvinism and political correctness, a place where a group of feminists teach Borat about America's global role in women's empowerment shortly before he discovers his future wife on a rerun of Baywatch.
As with Baron Cohen's TV series, in which the stealth comedian once got patrons at an Arizona bar to sing along to a song called "Throw the Jew Down the Well," Borat is most revealing and at its comic best in testing the limits of its unsuspecting American participants. The results include scenes such as Borat's visit to a gun shop, where only after a moment's pause does the proprietor express mild concern over the question, "What do you recommend to use on a Jew?" Nine-millimeter bullets was the initial suggestion.)
The film's most significant scene, which follows a trip to Washington, DC, and the home of "warlord George W. Bush," comes at a rodeo in Virginia, where a rowdily oblivious crowd applauds its Kazakh guest as he says of his homeland, "We support your war of terror!" He receives additional cheers after proclaiming, "May Bush drink the blood of every Iraqi man, woman and child!" but begins to lose the crowd after expressing the wish that Iraq be so severely bombed that nothing move there for the next 1,000 years. In a way that a number of recent documentaries have failed to do, the scene suggests the contradiction between America's catastrophic Iraq war and the unnerving malleability of a populace programmed to avoid confrontation within its own ranks at almost any cost.
After a self-imposed wait of several years, Western filmmakers more "serious" than Baron Cohen have recently started making new films about terrorism, human rights and the chasm between the First World and the Third. But the results, in films ranging from The Constant Gardener to the more recent World Trade Center, have generally been dreadful - self-important, tedious and neither as poignant nor insightful as their makers seem to think.
Without those films' obvious pretensions, Borat simply blows them out of the water, providing a deceptively insightful and much funnier look at many of the same issues. The film adeptly skewers the hatreds (anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic) still animating large swathes of the Third World, but at the same time avoids the false claims of polemicists who insist those hatreds don't exist or are even worse in the First.
In fact, the film's comically disguised political commentary is good enough that some viewers may be tempted to focus on it. That, surely, was never its maker's intent, especially when he filmed what is probably the longest, and definitely the most shocking, nude wrestling match in the history of Hollywood. In that sense, Borat may be the perfect cultural critique - clever and insightful, but just as good for discussion over a nice big pitcher of fermented horse urine.