Imagine a movie so politically insensitive, so momentously off-color, its mere existence warranted a rebuke from a sovereign foreign government.
You can’t buy hype like that, and you’ve almost certainly seen nothing like “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” a hilariously unhinged fusion of scripted and unscripted naughtiness that may endure as the greatest cinematic put-on since “This is Spinal Tap.”
Reprising one of the faux journalist characters from his “Ali G Indahouse” cable talk show, British comic Sacha Baron Cohen takes his ambush-style interview method (like “Jackass” without the stunts) to a global level. Meet Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen), a leading Kazakh TV reporter and the “sixth most famous person” in that impoverished, polluted and otherwise prosperity-impaired Central Asian nation.
Kazakhstan’s real-life woes don’t deter Cohen (whose penchant for ethnic stereotypes found ticklish expression as Will Ferrell’s French nemesis in “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby”) from poking fun at the country’s perceived backwardness.
Acquainting the viewer with his homeland, Borat open-mouth kisses his sister and does play-by-play at a yearly street festival called The Running of the Jew, in which white-clad Kazakh men flee from monstrous, fanged racial caricatures. (Stand down, Anti-Defamation League — Cohen is Jewish, and the Kazakh scenes were filmed in Romania.)
Borat’s provincial and anti-Semitic — yet oddly childlike — view of the world makes for a side-splitting study in contrasts when he comes to America (complete with pet rooster and drab, Soviet-era wardrobe) on a documentary fact-finding mission for Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information. Thing is, none of the appalled and baffled Americans who encounter Borat are (or appear to be) actors.
In one scene, a Manhattan bystander literally bolts in terror when Cohen tries to plant an Old World kiss on his cheek. In another, a room full of conventioneers gape in disbelief as Borat and his morbidly obese manager (American character actor Ken Davitian) engage in a naked wrestling match next to the dais.
Other duperinos include archconservative politico Alan Keyes and a trio of unsmiling feminists. Rarely has the bait-and-switch method of guerilla comedy been taken to such fiendishly ecumenical extremes.
In the midst of Borat’s hell-or-highwater quest to meet (and forcibly wed) former “Baywatch” bombshell Pamela Anderson, Cohen naturally flashes a cracked mirror at America itself. When Borat goes into a gun store and asks which model is best “to kill Jew,” the clerk unblinkingly makes a selection, as if it were an everyday question.
Is it a skewed and unfair assault on middle America, or simply a comedian offering a bit of rope? This past summer, Kazakhstan launched a PR campaign to spin the movie, but we see the real rubes, and they are us.
Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian Rated R, 82 minutes
Evolution of the mockumentary
° “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)
Rob Reiner and co. chronicle the faux exploits of the “world’s loudest rock band.” A genre is born.
° “Best in Show” (2000)
Writer-director Christopher Guest perfects the form he helped pioneer in “Tap,” orchestrating a hilarious, utterly fabricated exposé of kennel-club show dogs and their oddball human companions.
° “24 Hour Party People” (2002)
Playing legendary music promoter Tony Wilson, Steve Coogan leads the viewer on a guided, third-wall-demolishing tour of the ‘80s and early ‘90s Manchester rock scene. The real Wilson has a cameo. Directed by Michael Winterbottom.
° “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” (2005)
Winterbottom again, this time ducking behind the scenes at a movie production of Laurence Sterne’s long-thought “unfilmable” novel.