Virtually everyone who has seen early screenings of the comedy Borat has found it uproariously funny. But they're often a select audience already familiar with both the character Borat and its creator, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.
With a nationwide opening set for Friday, the question now is whether a mass, mainstream audience will get the film's satiric sensibilities -- or will its untamed political incorrectness and raging anti-Semitism offend them? Will they feel it violates a sense of comic fair play?
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is a "mockumentary" starring Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev, a cheerfully impudent, male-chauvinistic Kazakh journalist. He road-trips across America, speaking comically mangled English and constantly doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. His interactions are mostly with unwitting, everyday Americans who have been led to believe by the filmmakers that Cohen's alter ego, Borat, is the real thing. They get set up.
The humor in the film directed by Larry Charles is sometimes raunchy, especially a nude wrestling match between Borat and his heavyset producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian). And it is sometimes bitingly satirical in its political content -- "We support your war of terror," Borat tells a rodeo crowd before massacring "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Borat fears Jews so much he has nightmarish hallucinations when forced to stay at an elderly Jewish couple's bed-and-breakfast. He and his producer also choose to drive across America because they're scared Jews would hijack their plane "like they did on 9/11."
Cohen, 35, a modern-day Ernie Kovacs in his ability to subsume his personality in his comic creations, is best known in the U.S.
for playing the gay French NASCAR driver Jean Girrard in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. But in Britain he became a star as the obnoxiously slow-witted rapper/talk-show host Ali G, which acquired a cult U.S. following when HBO's Da Ali G Show was broadcast in 2003. Borat was a character on that show.
Because Borat's anti-Semitism is so flagrant, the film raises eyebrows. Is Cohen -- who was born in England into a Jewish family and studied history at Christ's College at Cambridge -- crossing a line? And is his rendering of the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan as a stewpot of anti-Semites, child abusers, prostitutes and generally crude people too cruel?
Borat's anti-Semitism has folkloric, fantastical roots in his version of Kazakhistan's culture. The film shows, for instance, the "traditional" Kazakh "running of the Jew" event, similar to Pamplona's "running of the bulls." And the Kazakhs are portrayed as simple, backward peasants -- Borat mistakes a hotel elevator for his room in New York and carries a chicken onto the subway.
"I saw the movie yesterday," said Roman Y. Vassilenko, an ambassadorial assistant and press secretary for Kazakhstan's U.S. embassy, when interviewed last week. "Like Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels and invented a country, Lilliput, to make a satire of England, this is the same thing. He invents a Kazakhstan in order to make a satire of a very different country."
Just to make sure the public realizes that Borat's Kazakhstan is not the real one, the embassy has released an official statement on the movie. It reads in part: "Kazakhstan, a Muslim majority country, is home to 130 ethnic groups and 40 religious faiths. Pope John Paul II, who visited Kazakhstan in 2001, called our country 'an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs.' " (The nation has a sizeable Russian Orthodox minority.)
Cohen, himself, isn't talking. Or, rather, he's talking only in character. Two weeks ago, he came to Santa Monica's Shutters on the Beach resort hotel for a Borat press conference, standing at a podium with an official-looking Kazakhstan emblem on it. Tall and dressed in a neat if staid suit, bearing a bright smile to contrast with his dark, bushy brows and hair, he did what amounted to a comedy act. Questions had to be submitted in advance.
"Good evening, gentleman and prostitutes," he began, in bumbling, heavily accented English that, for old-timers, recalled Bill Dana's Jose Jimenez act. There was also some of Julia Sweeney's Pat character from Saturday Night Live in the way he whined and slightly sighed.
Borat said he admired "mighty warlord George Walter Bush" as a "very strong man but perhaps not as strong as his father, Barbara." And when asked whom he'd most like to meet in the U.S., he mentioned "fearless anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibsons. We in Kazakhstan agree with his statement Jews started all the wars. We also have evidence they killed off the dinosaurs. Hurricane Katrina, too. They did it."
Borat uses prank-oriented "gotcha" humor familiar to fans of The Colbert Report, Ashton Kutcher's Punk'd and Cohen's own Da Ali G Show. This kind of on-camera entrapment was pioneered by Candid Camera and later used by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes against criminals. Does it cross a line here?
Slate.com recently wondered if those who felt humiliated could sue on the grounds they got duped into signing a release to appear in a documentary by a Kazakh journalist. And a story on MSNBC.com featured interviews with Borat interviewees who said they felt foolish.
But as Jay Dougherty, a professor specializing in entertainment law and copyrights at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles, points out, the Borat release form -- which he has studied -- covers all the bases. It makes signers agree to waive claims of fraud and tells them the film is intended to have "entertaining content" for a young-adult audience.
Whether the subjects sufficiently studied the release is another story. "But it's appropriate for the legal system to assume they read it when signed," Dougherty says in an interview.
For that matter, he says, people should expect entertainment that features everyday people -- possibly themselves -- caught unawares.
"In the modern age of reality TV, people are used to seeing it," Dougherty says. "Media culture seems to reward that these days."