A shamelessly crass but unquestionably funny fish-out-of-water comedy, “Borat” is guaranteed to offend someone during the hour and a half it takes to race by. Indeed, it seems designed to operate that way: the folks around me groaned as often as they giggled.
Sacha Baron Cohen, the daring British comedian from HBO’s “Da Ali G Show,” is the star, co-writer and co-producer; “Entourage’s” Larry Charles is the director. The format is a fake documentary about a Kazakhstan television personality, Borat, who takes his good-will campaign to the United States, where he proceeds to make a mess of nearly every contact with the natives.
Lugging around a suitcase that contains a live chicken, he’s nearly garrotted when he tries to become pals with surly New York subway riders. He doesn’t fare much better when he tries to barter with a hotel clerk or court “Baywatch’s” Pamela Anderson (who makes a brief appearance as herself).
Thanks to Borat’s primitive toilet training, there is much confusion about bodily fluids and the euphemisms that accompany the use of restrooms in polite society. He works with a “humor coach” to help him adjust to American culture, though it takes several reels for the advice to pay off. When it does, Borat unexpectedly finds the perfect occasion to demonstrate what he’s learned.
The opening credits, which resemble a scratched-up print of a deadly educational film from the 1950s, instantly suggest that tackiness will rule (the cinematographer is credited as “director of camera machine”). The documentary is supposedly the work of the Kazak Ministry of Information; the film’s subtitle is “Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
On his home turf, Borat takes us on a tour of a country that seems both appallingly primitive and weirdly efficient. Abortionists and car mechanics are interchangeable, and there’s even a place at the table for the village rapist and the “Running of the Jews.”
The anti-Semitic and homophobic jokes that turn up in “Borat” can be obnoxious. Most are obviously intended as satirical pokes at prejudice and its annoying tendency to stick around in the 21st century, but it’s easy to imagine an audience that will sympathize and even agree with some of the sentiments. It’s the old Archie Bunker dilemma: at what point does an accurate sendup of boorishness become an endorsement of it?
Cohen gets away with some of this because he’s Jewish (which doesn’t excuse nasty lines like “go crush that Jew egg before it hatches”) and because Borat doesn’t seem to have a problem with same-sex chuminess until it’s actually labeled “homosexual.” He showers with leathery gays from a pride parade and, in the film’s most unforgettable slapstick episode, he wrestles in the nude with a beyond-chubby sidekick.
Cohen also takes on fundamendalists, mortgage brokers, politicians, veteran feminists and weathermen as Borat jumps into an ice-cream truck to search for America, while “Born to Be Wild” blares on the soundtrack. You might laugh yourself sick, but you may not respect yourself in the morning.