Tracking oafish, earnest Kazakh TV reporter Borat Sagdiyev on a road-trip tour of America, British comedian/provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat is part Don Quixote, part Alexis de Tocqueville, part The Daily Show, part Yakov Smirnoff, part Jackass. The inventive, hilarious 84-minute movie melds pure, uproarious slapstick and boffo sight gags with a vicious, unblinking satire of American lunacy.
Cohen is Borat, an enthusiastic and sincerely anti-Semitic media personality from the "glorious" Eastern European nation of Kazakhstan who has been sent, with producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) and an unseen camera operator, to study American culture for Kazakh state television. He lands in New York, tries to kiss strange men on the subway, and lets a chicken loose. Once settled into a hotel room more luxurious than his Kazakh home, he sees Baywatch on television and decides he must travel to California to meet the lovely creature from the show.
But Borat won't fly "in case the Jews repeated their attack of 9-11," and, thus, a road trip is born. The visual humor here -- running wild on the streets of New York, washing his underwear in Central Park, taking a dump outside the Trump building, frolicking in a gay-pride parade, swimming in a pool with a bear -- is universally funny and compelling. Nothing is as unforgettable as a gonzo nude hotel fight between Borat and Azamat that starts in their room and continues through the halls, down an elevator, and into a ballroom packed with bankers.
But the film's social critique is most compelling. Some of this is just funny in a very gentle way, as when Borat assumes a neighborhood yard sale is the work of gypsys who have taken over the home and are selling its belongings. There's a priceless visit to a car dealership where the salesman is so intent on moving product that he's not flustered by anything his potential customer says. "I want to have a car that will attract a woman who is shaved down below," Borat says. Without missing a beat, the salesman responds, "Well, that would be a Corvette."
But at its best and most unnerving, Borat uncovers hatred in the heart of America. By playing the innocent, Cohen coaxes ideas and beliefs out of some subjects in front of the camera that are usually kept safely hidden: Monstrous, women-hating South Carolina frat boys who get drunk and pine for slavery; a rodeo organizer who's happy to volunteer that homosexuality should be a capital offense.
Somehow allowed to address a rodeo crowd, Borat gets a huge applause when he pledges his support for the U.S. "war of terror" and only a slightly lessened response when he follows that with "May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq."
Ultimately, Borat rhymes strongly with another Movie of the Year candidate, Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Both are guided tours of America, alternative State of the Union addresses. Block Party illuminates a generosity of spirit too dormant in recent years; Borat is a comic attack on our heart of darkness, with occasional rays of sunshine peeking through. I prefer the former but think both are valid and definitely demand to be seen.