He’s sexist, racist, homophobic and blissfully oblivious. His apparent cluelessness manages to bring out the worst in people. He is so offensive that politically incorrect doesn’t even apply to him. And he’s drawing huge crowds from New York to San Francisco. Nice.
Welcome to the phenomenon that is “Borat’’ — a film that takes a character who redefines the word idiot and makes the rest of us look like ninnies. He’s taking the world by storm, and if you haven’t heard the buzz by now you must be a shrouded in a monastery, or a dirt farmer in his beloved Kazakhstan — where these days he’s loved, uh, not so much.
Oh, and did I mention it may be one of the funniest comedies ever made? And that people cannot stop talking about it? With the term “San Francisco values’’ being bandied about by desperate Republicans everywhere this election season, it seems appropriate that Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest impolitic character has become the focus of global attention.
Cohen was the host of a British television show starting in 2000 where as his character, Ali G., he interviewed serious people who ended up looking like fools trying to answer his ridiculous questions — such as why terrorists couldn’t run a train into the White House. (No tracks.) He once asked Sam Donaldson if he remembered when two journalists brought down the government over a scandal involving Waterworld.
But in his new faux documentary “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Cohen plays an English-language-assassinating television journalist who comes to America to learn more about the country, discovers Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson and travels from New York to Los Angeles so he can “make sexy time’’ with her.
Along the way he interviews a congressman, meets with feminists, engages a humor coach, attends a Southern dinner party, sings at a rodeo and generally runs into a segment of America rarely seen on the Left Coast, with all the subtlety of a charging bear — one of which just happens to be along for the ride in the back of his newly bought ice cream truck.
And that’s where we get to know Borat Sagdiyev, possibly the most brilliant cinematic comic character since Peter Sellers created Inspector Clouseau — someone so dim that he seems harmless, which is why people agree to talk to him. Sure there were hidden cameras involved — what guerilla street comedy would be without one? — but Borat unleashed goes where no one has gone before, so rude and crude and fearless that the film’s producers say that during the shooting the police came at least 50 times.
But below the surface is Cohen’s real genius — playing on the fears and prejudices of those he comes across, such as one rodeo attendee who tells him that he should shave his Groucho-like mustache so he looks less like a terrorist and more like an “eye-talian,’’ and then proceeds to announce that they’re hoping to rid the world of gays. Or when a gun dealer, who when asked what would be the best weapon to kill a Jew, calmly recommends a 9-mm or a Glock automatic.
(Warning: Those who are devoutly religious, espouse family values, think the war in Iraq is a good thing and believe in the sanctity of, well, anything, should probably not see this movie.) Nothing is out of bounds for Borat, not anti-Semitism, not religious zealotry, not cultural diversity. He makes his racist, misogynistic statements in the most casual way and his subjects respond accordingly. So when he talks about how they keep developmentally disabled people locked in cages in his country, people nod. When he chuckles after a group of feminists tell him that they believe that a woman should have equal rights as a man, they don’t quite get it, until he adds: “Is it not a problem that the woman have a smaller brain than the man?’’
Doesn’t sound so funny on paper? When I saw the movie over the weekend, people were howling and screeching in delight — at least when they could catch their breaths between gags. “Borat’’ is like an a runaway comedic assault, and that’s why it is the No. 1 movie in America and about to get bigger when it opens in wider release this week.
San Francisco has often dabbled in social Darwinism. Cohen takes it and drops it on its head. Horrible and hilarious have never been paired so well.
It’s a great American satire, as played out through the antics of a buffoon, and now boasts glorious box office. Nice.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.