Talent is luck, they say, and right about now, no comedian has more of either than Sacha Baron Cohen. The taxpayers from the sovereign state of Kazakhstan have been lavishly subsidising the publicity for Baron Cohen’s new movie with fury-filled full-page government ads in the New York Times, a personal complaint from the Kazakh president to Mr George W Bush, followed by a belated and half-hearted official invitation to Baron Cohen to come visit.
Borat is the hero of this extraordinary mocu-reality adventure: a film so funny, so breathtakingly offensive, so suicidally discourteous, that strictly speaking it shouldn’t be legal at all. He is the naive provincial TV reporter supposedly from Kazakhstan, though it is clear that this “Kazakhstan” is a joke cardboard country, a post-Soviet neverland picked at random, as cheerfully as Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, the spin doctors in the political satire Wag The Dog, once picked “Albania” for their diversionary hoax war. Reportedly, Baron Cohen was actually inspired to create Borat by his youthful travels as a student in the then Soviet republic of Georgia. The character coincidentally resembles Alex, the Ukrainian guide with the bizarre mangled English in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated. Borat is however immeasurably funnier.
Our hero leaves his dirt-poor Kazakh village, and travels to New York with a cameraman and his obese and unreliable producer to make a documentary for state TV. He experiences an epiphany there in his budget hotel-room, whose opulence has already reduced him to tears of incredulous joy. Watching a re-rerun of Baywatch, he falls in love with Pamela Anderson and journeys across the United States to Los Angeles, where he dreams of subjecting her to the Kazakh forcible-marriage ceremony, whose legality he believes will be just as valid in America as at home. Grinning nervously, unable to comprehend anything of what he sees or hears, Borat is an innocent of the guiltiest sort: he is boorish, he is grotesquely misogynist, he is crass. Above all he is an anti-semite, and for cinemagoers who have become used to the unwritten convention that anti-semitism is not represented on screen other than in the period garb of Nazi Germany, it is almost a physical shock to feel the swipe of Borat’s contemporary bigotry. The last time I experienced this was listening to Terry Jones’s sentimental cleaning-lady in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life in 1983: “I feel that life’s a game, you sometimes win or lose/And though I may be down right now, at least I don’t work for Jews.” But this really is something else.
One of the first sequences is Borat introducing a TV clip showing one of his community’s oldest folk traditions: the Running of the Jew. It is quite incredible, and conceived on an epic scale to rival the chariot race from Ben-Hur. Obviously, Sacha Baron Cohen is himself Jewish and perhaps we should here quickly rehearse the saloon-bar truisms: only Jewish people are allowed to tell Jewish jokes, if these comedians wanted to be dangerous why don’t they take on Islam – yes, yes, quite … but is Sacha Baron Cohen really allowed to do this? Is anyone? It is a sensational provocation, a 19th-century anti-semitic cartoon gigantically reborn in the 21st century, in which anti-semitism is alive and well all over the world, in places where they have incidentally never heard of the liberal west’s carefully nurtured distinction between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. It goes beyond satire into pure anarchy, pure craziness. And it’s also very funny.
From the way it is shot, some of Borat’s encounters could be staged. I certainly hope that Pamela Anderson’s final encounter with Borat happened with her connivance. But the best moments, and that’s pretty much all of them, have the unmistakable look of real people really being astonished and horrified by Borat. He hits a comic goldmine simply by going up to male New Yorkers on the streets and trying to kiss them on both cheeks. One screams abuse; another skips away, zig-zagging, hunching his shoulders and flapping his arms at the elbow like a 10-year-old evading a wasp. It is sublime.
Baron Cohen really shows his class when Borat is a guest at a Texan rodeo. He fearlessly strides into the centre of the ring with his mic, loudly praises his hosts’ “War of Terror”, leads wild cheering when he expresses the hope that Iraq is bombed so that even the lizards are killed, but then with magnificent effrontery allows his audience to suspect they’ve been duped by singing a transparently absurd “Kazakh national anthem” about potassium production to the tune of The Star-Spangled Banner. The sheer miasma of wrongness and unease that washes over the crowd causes a young cowgirl demonstrating horse-riding techniques to lose her concentration and fall off her horse at the end of Borat’s song: a brilliantly surreal moment.
The fascination of Borat’s comedy situationism, his theatre of cruelty, is that its hero is deeply unsympathetic. Ali G had a kind of goofy charm, but Borat is just so horrible, with a deplorable quality mitigated only by his ineffectuality. Borat 2 must surely now be in the works: perhaps a face-off with a rival TV star from the hated neighbouring republic of Uzbekistan? (Will Ferrell? Jonathan Pryce? Stephen Merchant?) Like Freddy Krueger, that living nightmare on bad taste street, Borat will surely be back. Fools don’t come unholier than this.