Opening with a quick introduction to life in his impoverished village in impoverished Kazakhstan, proudly displaying his VCR and cassette player in the rundown shack he shares with a cow, Borat makes some quick introductions to his over-friendly sister, the fourth best prostitute in the country and his terrifying wife, who despises him, before announcing that the Ministry of Culture are to send him to make a documentary about the US and A. Enough of a storyline to satisfy our need for a consecutive narrative and sustain a stream of gags kicks in once Borat arrives in America, figures out the television in his hotel room and happens upon a rerun of Baywatch. The camera holds on his face, a picture of wonder, as Pamela Anderson bounces across the screen in slow-motion. Abandoning all other committments (the government, his journalistic integrity, the education of his nation), right there and then, Borat instead buys an ice-cream van and starts out on a road-trip, across the country to LA to find and marry the buxom babe with his flapping producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) and a huge brown bear in tow.
At the first stop on the road-trip, at a rodeo in Virginia, through a monumental lapse in somebody's concentration, Borat is allowed to address the crowd for a few minutes on the topic of the war in Iraq, before then singing the Star Spangled Banner, the traditional kickstart to public events in the US. The crowd clap politely while the heavily accented Borat endorses their “war of terror” and cheer when he wishes “George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq”. The booing starts when, instead of the familiar lyrics, he sings a song about Kazakhstan potassium production over the lilting air. It goes on for a few minutes. In the background, startled by the unfamiliar noise, a flag-toting cowgirl falls from her horse in surprise in a brilliantly poetic accidental moment, and the scene ends. So it goes, scene after scene of hilarious inappropriateness, with barely a dull moment. He crashes around an antiques store, causing a couple of hundred dollars of damage. He shits in a bag and brings it to a swanky Southern society dinner table. He hatches a romantic plan that however deranged, is not beyond most men's daydreams. The Pamela Anderson scenes, most obviously, are scripted, but other than that there is a fair bit of predestined material. The best of it, however, and that is still most of it, is improvised. Although you and I are in on the joke, the people Borat meets along the way have no reason not to believe he is exactly as he says, a foreign documentary maker, making a real film. In a way, he is. Borat’s apparent innocence, his air of professional earnestness and initial willingness to learn and adapt make him irresistible to those willing to rise to the bait. Although coming for the most part from a sincere place, the well-meaning default setting of the typical American, some of the people he meets are dangerously easily prompted into agreeing with Borat’s racist, bigoted opinions. Some try to explain how things are different in the West. Some, probably the smart ones, just run screaming.
In the expert hands of Curb Your Enthusiasm director Larry Charles, Borat covers all the comedy bases in a rapid-fire 80-odd minutes, although most of his job involved pointing the camera and keeping it in focus. It's the Borat show, and this is sublime physical work – his walk is astonishing, his jumping idiot’s face and flapping hands are all-revealing. As carefully assembled as Chaplin’s Tramp, he creates an immediate effect in his rank polyester suit, square shoes, bushy head and broad moustache. His blathering, seemingly stream-of-consciousness dialogue is always hilarious and always beautifully timed. Baron Cohen’s ability to remain in character under the greatest duress and come up with the killer gag time and again is extraordinary to see. Busy outraging a panel of distinguished New York feminists with his stone-age beliefs, in a delicious aside, he asks one of them to “smile, baby”. Her jaw hangs open in astonishment, and yours will too.
To further pile on the embarrassment there are a few no-holds-barred gross-out scenes. He has Western bathroom etiquette explained to him in detail by a Southern Belle and wrestles his despoiling producer naked through a crowded hotel lobby in a riotous scene, done in a single unbroken take. On the issue of anti-Semetism, Baron Cohen is Jewish, so is perfectly entitled to mine this seam for humour in the same way as, say, Tommy Tiernan casts his yellow eye on the Irish. Anyway, it's not about Borat, really. Under the cover of his broken English and equally fractured grin, spitting out his enthusiastic catchphrases and requesting high-fives, the nub of it is that these people can believe for a moment any of Borat’s excitable, offensive ramblings; that ‘in my country’ women are kept in cages, people drink fermented horse urine and there is a man with 182 teeth in his head. No matter how outrageous and offensive Borat is, there is an American willing to match him. It's funny all the way through, but the kicker is that Borat's bottomless ignorance is being used to expose shades of the same bigotry and racism in those people he meets along the way. I would hate to think what dark corners he'd find if Borat walked the streets of Ireland asking the plain people of Ireland about knackers or immigrants, or table manners for that matter, but Baron Cohen choses his own targets. He gives America the rope, but they hang themselves.
UPDATE: Joe Queenan is a fucking idiot.
FURTHER UPDATE: Except for the opening paragraphs about Life Is Beautiful. He's bang on there, even if I don't really see the connection.