Comedy: where one man’s bellylaugh is another’s tumbleweed. And this month, leaping thong-clad under the spotlight after the (arguably) rib-tickling thrills of Talladega Nights and Clerks II, comes the third terrific comedy of 2006.Sure, some will suffer charisma bypasses, thinking Borat and Baron Cohen are as funny as cushions. They’ll no doubt label the film inexcusably racist, rude and repugnant. Most of them won’t have seen it.
Carrying the burden of controversy, Borat holds the dubious honour of being the only film threatened with legal action by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry. In going from his homeland – depicted as one large shanty shithole, where each town has its very own “naughty, naughty” rapist and the age of consent is single-figured – our eponymous guide is meant to return with the enlightened riches of the western world, inevitably falling foul of countless cross-cultural scrapes along the way. Baron Cohen, though, from Ali G onwards, has never been one for mere pranks and easy giggles – his comedy here, as ever, being textured, intelligent and deeply political.
If anyone wants to wage a legal campaign against the filmmakers, it should be those from the Mighty US warlord Premier Bush’s heartland – the deep-south hick towns Borat and his chubby producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) travel to between New York and the Pammy-promised land of LA. Oft-hit targets for sure, but by coaxing rednecks into situations of his choosing, he elicits statements and rants that make his Kazakhstan look positively forward-thinking. The USA of Borat is one where a Rodeo crowd cheers at his statement, “I think we should bomb Iraq until not even a single lizard can live in the desert,”; where university-educated Frat Boys lament the Jewish minority “having all the power”; and where chattering class diners call the cops when a hooker turns up. (Erm, fair enough.)
Of course it’s not all excruciating set-ups and, in shifting from “Did he really say that?” discussions with feminists and “chocolate faces” (African-Americans) to big-fat-man’s-balls-in-his-face naked wrestling and a car salesman who answers, deadpan, that the best car to ensure success with “women shaved below” is a Corvette, Borat reveals a broad range to its creator’s humour. But most of all, in showing up the mighty America as the confused, divided culture it undoubtedly is, Baron Cohen’s ludicrous developing world parody turns the tables on his superpower hosts.
Speaking in reaction to the film, the rodeo producer’s wife told her local rag, “It’s a wonder one of these cowboys didn’t go out there and rope him up.” Given such material, Baron Cohen’s victims have never seemed more appropriate or deserved.
Borat will offend as many viewers as it delights, but there's an intelligence and edge that ensures the laughs are never - well, rarely - cheap.