'Borat': Is he hilarious, or just offensive?

Virginia Rohan
The Record (Hackensack N.J.)

He recently showed up at the White House asking for "Premier George Walter Bush," posed for Entertainment Weekly dressed as all the members of the Village People and arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival in an ox cart pulled by bullishly strong women in peasant garb.

In his impossibly titled new movie -- "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" -- he: mangles "The Star Spangled Banner" at a Virginia rodeo; sneaks out of a Midwestern bed and breakfast in the dead of night after realizing it's run by Jews; calls Alan Keyes "a real live chocolate face" and says/does many other things that could never be printed in this or any other mainstream newspaper.

No wonder so many people don't know what to make of Borat Sagdiyev -- or, as you may still be calling him, "that strange-speaking man with the big mustache who's constantly popping up in movie promos on my television set lately."

Even his studio, 20th Century Fox, seems a little unsure about Borat, announcing last week that it scaled back a "wide" release from 2,000 to 800 screens, but then expanding the following weekend to 2,200, a plan that allows for word-of-mouth buzz to build about the partly scripted, mostly guerrilla-style film. (According to surveys, not enough people were aware of who Borat is, the Los Angeles Times reported.)

Will "Borat" ultimately be a huge hit or a very big bomb? Is it, as Entertainment Weekly has asked, "the funniest movie ever?" or just the most offensive one?

Time will yield the answers. Meanwhile, we offer this little primer on the most controversial movie star of, well, at least the coming week.

Full name: Borat Sagdiyev.

Who is he? From the tiny village of Kuczek, Kazakhstan, Borat is a journalist for his country's state-run TV network who, in the movie, is sent to the "U.S. and A" to report on all aspects of American life. The "second most successful" TV reporter in Kazakhstan, the misogynistic Borat is fascinated by black people, baffled by gays, homicidal toward Gypsies and phobic of Jews.

Who is he really? Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, 35, who was born in London and educated at Cambridge. He is one of Britain's most popular comedians -- who in real life is said to be soft-spoken and gentlemanly.

Where may you have seen Borat? On Cohen's British series "Da Ali G Show," which has aired on HBO. Borat is one of Cohen's three personas on that show. The others are Bruno, the vain, shallow, self-obsessed, gay "voice of Austrian TV youth"; and Ali G, a not very bright, bad-boy British rapper who has interviewed everyone from U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to a clearly befuddled Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Two famous Ali G interview questions: "What was it like to walk on the sun?" (to Buzz Aldrin) and "Who really shot J.R.?" (to the ex-head of the FBI). Ali G also starred in his own 2002 movie, "Ali G Indahouse," and Cohen's plans to develop a Bruno movie sparked an intense bidding war late last week.

Where else have you seen Cohen? The movie "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," in which he played flamboyant French Formula One driver Jean Girard, who challenges Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly for NASCAR supremacy.

Cohen's in the comic tradition of: Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman), Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) and Andy Kaufman. Like them, Cohen rarely comes out of character during interviews. He even gave the 2004 Harvard commencement address as Ali G. And, like Kaufman, his characters sometimes so rile his targets that watching him can be almost unbearably uncomfortable. As with Kaufman, you sometimes actually fear for the man's life.

Borat's loved ones include: Sons Hooeylewis and Bilak.

Cohen's real-life loved one: Fiancee Isla Fisher, an actress best known for playing the petite, wild and crazy sister who set her sights on Vince Vaughn in "Wedding Crashers."

Borat's most outrageous (printable) movie moments:

  • Gives his prostitute-sister a passionate goodbye kiss and narrates footage of the annual "Running of the Jew" festival before setting off from his small village.

  • Wreaks havoc in the New York subway when his pet chicken gets loose.

  • Brings a bag of his feces to the table and invites a prostitute for dessert at a dinner party in Alabama, where his hosts are trying to teach him the basics of American etiquette.

  • Gets into a fierce argument (involving a "Baywatch" pictorial of Pamela Anderson) with his mountainous producer, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), that quickly escalates to an angry naked wrestling match -- which then spills out into the hallways, elevator, lobby and ballroom of their hotel.

    Borat's many fans include: "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David, who is said to have left a private screening of the "Borat" movie halfway through because he was laughing so hard he couldn't breathe. (Odds are good it was the naked wrestling sequence.) Reportedly, Britain's late queen mother was also a big fan.

    Borat's enemies include: The police departments of a number of American cities and towns -- some of which issued warrants for Cohen's arrest during the making of "Borat" -- and the Kazakh government, which has made legal threats against Cohen's comedy routine for depicting their country as a nation of drunken anti-Semites who rank donkeys above women and make wine from fermented horse urine. "He is not a Kazakh," Kazakh press secretary Roman Vasilenko told Reuters last month. "What he represents is a country of Boratastan, a country of one."

    "Very ni-i-ice" postscript: Kazakh officials, looking to raise the profile of the oil-rich former Soviet republic (and perhaps counter criticism for its deteriorating civil liberties?), have recently softened their stance on Borat. Earlier this month, Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliyev said, "We must have a sense of humor and respect other people's freedom of creativity. I'd like to invite Cohen here. He can discover a lot of things. Women drive cars, wine is made of grapes, and Jews are free to go to synagogues."

    Is Borat pointing up prejudices or reinforcing negative stereotypes? That's the big ongoing debate. Fans insist it's the former, but critics blast him for the latter. One hint of where Cohen's coming from: In a 2004 interview, he told NPR's Robert Siegel that he wrote his Cambridge thesis on Jewish involvement in the American civil-rights movement, with special focus on the 1964 murders in Mississippi of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

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