Baron Cohen grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, speaks fluent Hebrew, and came of age with the punks and then the rappers. Several years ago, he met a doctor in the south of Russia whom he described (on the DVD of Da Ali G Show’s first season) as unintentionally hilarious. Now he identifies with the anti-Semite aggressor for the purposes of travestying him. The film begins in a small town in Kazakhstan —incestuous, inbred, where the local rapist is regarded as a colorful eccentric (“naughty, naughty”) and every year the citizens have the “running of the Jew” in which the masked, demonic figure attempts to “get the money.” For the role, Baron Cohen didn’t use deodorant or wash his one ugly pale-blue suit—so when he got in close to his subjects, they had to contend with his stench along with his stupidity. And so Borat spares no one: not the interviewees, not the interviewer.
I loved Borat in small doses on the TV show—his deferential affect was a nice change of tune after Ali G’s belligerence. But except for a screamingly funny climax in which he attempts to kidnap Pamela Anderson (who reportedly wasn’t in on the joke), I found the Borat feature (directed by Larry Charles, who does similar duties on Curb Your Enthusiasm) depressing; and the paroxysms of the audience reinforced the feeling that I was watching a bearbaiting or pigsticking. Baron Cohen is such an inspired comic actor that it’s a little disappointing when he jumps so quickly, so eagerly to offend the people he interviews; it would be more fun, I think, if he gave them some room to maneuver. But then, of course, we wouldn’t squirm or cringe. And then comedy wouldn’t be evolving in the way it is now—to the point that it bleeds into horror.