Borat follows the titular “reporter” for Kazakh TV--easily the funniest of Da Ali G Show’s stable of characters--as he takes a cross-country journey across the U.S. We even get to see Borat’s home village in Kazakhstan when he sets off. We get one new character in on the joke--Borat’s corpulent, non-English speaking producer (who’s presence in the film--comedically suspect at first--is revealed halfway through, when he and Borat get into a fight when Borat comes out of the shower and catches the producer masturbating on his hotel bed to Borat’s Baywatch fan magazine (don’t ask). The resulting five minutes feature the most extreme male nudity I’ve ever had “fortune” to witness, and I’d be shocked if at least part of this scene wasn’t trimmed down to get by the MPAA. Let’s just say that if you’ve never seen Borat being 69’d by an obese Slav, you’ve never lived). The rest of the cast are real people who apparently have never heard of Da Ali G Show.
The filmmakers (written by Cohen and his regular TV cronies, directed by Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm veteran director Larry Charles) find just the right through-lines and recurring gags to justify expanding a Borat segment to feature length. Da Ali G Show fans will recognize the typical places Borat finds himself--interviewing feminists, eating in Southern high society, on an RV full of frat guys, at a rodeo, at driving school, at a bed and breakfast run by an elderly Jewish couple, etc. The segments work just as well here as on the TV show, and the through-line (Borat’s traveling to LA to meet Pamela Anderson, whom he fell in love with watching a syndicated episode of Baywatch in his hotel room.) justifies his presence at all these events. Cohen (who’s Jewish) doesn’t squirm away from edgy humor--one particularly funny segment right at the beginning of the film shows a Kazakhstanian village celebration called “The Running of the Jew”--which only raises the stakes in getting big laughs.
Semi-underground comedy shows have a spotty history in their translation to the big screen. Mr. Show’s Run, Ronnie, Run was a grave disappointment artistically and a disaster commercially. The Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy tanked at the box office, though it has amassed a devoted cult following on DVD, thanks mainly to it turning out to be hysterical once all the box office-failure nonsense is forgotten. Tom Green produced a movie so weird, most people try to pretend it doesn’t exist (though I have a sneaking suspicion that 1,000 years from now, when scholars are trying to educate college students on how depraved 2000 A.D. North America was, Freddy Got Fingered will be a syllabus mainstay). Monty Python’s Holy Grail was perhaps the only cinematic crossover successful on all levels. It’s unclear whether Borat can find a big enough audience to satisfy the corporate bean-counters at the studio, but the important thing is we all have finally have another great comedy to look forward to.