Great humor is often cruel, and by laughing, we — the audience — are complicit in that cruelty. “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the faux documentary starring (and conceived by) English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and directed by Larry Charles, is a pure example of the way good satire can never be clean, either for the perpetrator or for the viewer. The movie has already attracted some controversy: The Anti-Defamation League has released a statement about it, acknowledging that Cohen uses “humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear” before moving in for the clincher: “We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”
But that, I’m afraid, is the way the knish crumbles. If the public needs to be protected from humor, then there’s no way humor can do its job — particularly if that job is sometimes a dirty one. In “Borat,” Cohen plays Borat Sagdiyev, a joyously anti-Semitic, bigoted, sex-obsessed, disco-dancing, English-mangling Kazakh TV journalist who comes to America to report on the customs and mores of the American people. This is one of the funniest and most pointed satires in years, but it’s also one of the most complex, not so much because of the way it so outrageously exaggerates Borat’s anti-Semitism, but because Cohen’s methods — which depend on bamboozling ordinary citizens — are sometimes morally suspect. I’ve seen “Borat” twice, and I laughed almost as hard the second time as I did the first. But both times I left the movie feeling a little shaky, as if I’d just taken part in an amusement achieved by questionable means. Everyone who sees and enjoys “Borat” will walk away with a favorite line from it. (I’m somewhat partial to the way he approaches a pleasant Midwestern woman running a yard sale and, believing she’s a gypsy, shakes an old Barbie at her accusingly: “Who is this lady you have shrunk?”) But the true brilliance of “Borat” may lie deeply buried between the almost infinite number of quotable lines: Sometimes we can’t face up to our own capacity for cruelty — but at least we can get a gag out of it.
We first meet Borat in his small Kazakh hometown, a jumble of huts and dirt roads, where he introduces us to his sister, who is the region’s top prostitute (she puts the capper on the gag by proudly brandishing a trophy), and also to “the town mechanic and abortionist.” At one point he waves toward a bunch of kids playing in the dirt, with guns, identifying it as the town kindergarten. Borat explains his assignment: The state-run TV network is sending him to America, with his producer and cameraman Azamat (Ken Davilian), to film a documentary that will help them modernize things at home. And so Borat arrives in New York, wearing a drapey, gray off-the-rack suit that seems vaguely out of date, in an Old World kind of way, but not so weird that anyone on 42nd Street would look twice at it. His hair is teased high into a disco-Glasnost pompadour; his mustache, a furry love letter to Groucho, or maybe to Tom Selleck, sets off a row of Pepsodent-white choppers — even his teeth are in love with capitalism.
Borat is a naif in a strange land — awed by the luxury of his standard midtown hotel room, he freshens his face with water from the toilet bowl — but he doesn’t come to America unarmed: He has the ability to charm us and to skewer us, and he does both. In New York, he meets with a group of women called Veteran Feminists of America; as they earnestly and valiantly try to explain to him that women are the equals of men, he cuts them off with a smirk: “Give me a smile, baby, why angry face?” But he does learn something from these women: He has fallen deeply in love with Pamela Anderson’s “Baywatch” character, CJ, after catching a rerun on his hotel-room TV, and he asks the feminists if they know her. One of them explains, rather patiently, that CJ is just a character, but the actress who plays her is Pamela Anderson, and she lives in Los Angeles. So Borat, secretly hoping to get to L.A. to meet his true love, convinces the reluctant Azamat that they must leave New York to discover the “real” America, a land of cowboys and rodeos, of Southerners and “chocolate faces.”
At a West Virginia rodeo, Borat strikes up a friendly conversation with an older gent in a cowboy hat who agrees with him that homosexuals should be run out of town or exterminated; he attends a dinner party among genteel white Southerners, where he needs instructions on how to use toilet paper; he treks to Washington, where he meets with former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, offering him a gift of cheese made with milk from his wife’s tit.
Cohen doesn’t choose his targets indiscriminately, and some of them are certainly people we’d like to see fall: Borat meets with conservative nutcase Alan Keyes, and while the sequence is funny enough, you wish Cohen had gone further with it. But one of the nastier angles of “Borat” is that Cohen seems determined to prove how stupid Middle America is. (He is, of course, an equal-opportunity offender, in that he goes after seemingly sophisticated New Yorkers, too.) Sometimes Cohen seems to be drawing stereotypical behavior out of people, instead of simply locating it. Even so, what’s remarkable about “Borat” is that for every American who rises to the bait he so temptingly dangles, there are at least two more who go out of their way to be kind to him: A Southern etiquette coach doesn’t miss a beat when he “innocently” shows her some obscene pictures — she simply tells him that he might not want to share those pictures at a dinner party. And a gun-shop owner deflects Borat’s questions of whether a particular weapon is good for killing Jews: He doesn’t want to be rude to Borat, but he sure doesn’t want to play along, either. (And he refuses to sell him a gun.) In the end, “Borat” may say more about the openness and good intentions of the American character than it does about our closed-mindedness and willful ignorance.
And the movie is straightforward about one thing: Borat’s moral beliefs come straight out of folklore. He introduces us to a favorite event in his hometown, “The Running of the Jew,” in which grotesque costumed figures (their oversize papier-mâché heads come complete with horns) are chased merrily and viciously by the townsfolk; when he comes to America, he takes along “a jar of Gypsy tears, to protect me from AIDS.” “Borat” has infuriated some people (one of Borat’s targets in the film, sculptor Linda Stein, one of the earnest feminists, told the New York Post that she had been led to believe she was participating in a serious documentary that would help third-world women) and confused others (the Kazakhstan government, fearing that the movie would give people the wrong idea about the country, recently took out a four-page ad in the New York Times, touting the advances of its glorious nation).
Even though no one likes to be the butt of a joke, some of these “victims” only end up justifying the reasons jokes like these need to be made in the first place. But in addition to just ruffling some feathers, Cohen’s pranks may have done some actual harm: Dharma Arthur, the TV producer who booked Borat on a Jackson, Miss., television show (footage from which appears in “Borat”), wrote in Newsweek that Cohen’s gag set off a chain of events that ultimately caused her to lose her job.
The fact that a woman could lose her job, at the hands of self-serious small-town TV types, because of a comedian’s prank is itself evidence that Cohen’s satire is right on the money. But when a comedian’s brilliance leads to that kind of damage — when his being extraordinarily good at his job means that someone else loses hers — the joke gets a bitter, unpleasant edge. “Borat” is an astonishingly entertaining picture, and it’s a testament to Cohen’s gifts that he can pull off a feat as extravagant and as fully realized as this one is. (Not to mention that the movie’s big nude-wrestling scene is a farcical masterpiece in itself.) But “Borat” is not a guilt-free pleasure. We can laugh at Cohen’s unwitting marks, because they’re not us. But really, we’re just lucky that we weren’t in his line of fire.