One night this summer Sacha Baron Cohen screened a rough cut of his latest comedy for a select group of Hollywood hipsters - a handful of L.A.'s most successful comedians, writers and directors. When the lights came up, so the story goes, one of his guests turned to another and remarked, "I feel like someone just played me Sgt. Pepper's for the first time." Reading about that may have raised my expectations unrealistically.
Not that Borat isn't delightfully demented at times and envelope-pushingly outrageous at others. It's just that the film isn't the revolutionary creation many audience members may anticipate, given the buzz that's been building in the press since its enthusiastic reception at Cannes. Not to mention its record-breaking opening weekend.
Baron Cohen stars as Kazakhstani television personality Borat Sagdiyev, one of the characters the Cambridge-educated British comedian introduced on HBO's "Da Ali G Show." The movie's premise: The ministry of information has him sent to the United States to make a documentary about "the greatest country in a world" in the hope that what he discovers will help make his home country a better place to live. Hence the subtitle: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Borat himself is an endearing blend of innocence and ignorance, a third-world hayseed completely clueless about the offensiveness of his backward attitudes. He arrives in New York and relieves himself on a small patch of public greenery. Interviewing a group of feminists, he asks whether educating women is difficult given that their brains are the size of a squirrel's. When he realizes the bed-and-breakfast he's checked into is run by a kindly old Jewish couple, his heart is filled with terror. He furtively spits the sandwich they serve him into a napkin, and later goes running out into the night. (The actor is himself Jewish.)
For many, the joke here will appear to be simply the offensiveness of the character's attitudes and the limitless backwardness he displays. Certainly Baron Cohen employs these to considerable comic effect. He interviews former presidential hopeful Alan Keyes and introduces him as "a genuine chocolate face - no makeup." After serving cheese from his homeland to a Washington dignitary, he announces it was made from the milk of his mother's tit as the camera zooms in on the disconcerted fellow's face. Borat laughs disbelievingly when informed that American women must give their consent before one can "make a sexytime" with them.
But here's the real joke: For every ludicrous, barbaric view Borat brings with him from his country, he encounters a real- life U.S. citizen - or a whole group of them - embracing the very same stone-age belief. This is the picture's real conceptual coup. Somehow the performer, his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), and their camera crew (which presumably included the film's director, Larry Charles) were able to catch a jaw-droppingly large number of Americans off-guard enough to say things to a total stranger on film you wouldn't expect them normally to even utter aloud.
The movie's most notable strength is therefore also its most notable weakness. It's shocking to gaze into this mirror of America. Asked what weapon he'd recommend for shooting Jews, the proprietor of a gun shop doesn't hesitate to suggest a Glock. A bunch of drunk frat boys share opinions about women and sex that make Borat's look enlightened. In the Midwest, the audience at a rodeo applauds as Borat announces his countrymen's support for "America's war of terror." He cagily ratchets up the rhetoric, but the crowd continues to cheer as he exhorts George Bush to "drink the blood of Iraqi babies" and turn that country into "a smoking wasteland where not even a lizard could live in for a thousand years." It's a different matter when he mangles the national anthem. Then things get ugly.
All of this makes for one great gotcha moment after another. There's no denying that Borat provides a transfixing spectacle of tastelessness and hypocrisy. Combined with a subplot in which the character falls head over heels for Pamela Anderson after catching an episode of "Baywatch," and commits to driving to California and marrying her, it offers a viewing experience unlike that of any movie in memory.
On the other hand, it will remind you of a lot of things you've seen on TV. Baron Cohen's latest is a warped and sometimes wickedly clever variation - but a variation nonetheless - on shows such as "Punk'd." They are themselves, of course, variations on the original gotcha-thon, "Candid Camera," a program whose creators prided themselves on catching people "in the act of being themselves."
Borat may catch them being more misogynistic, narrow-minded and xenophobic than ever, but, in essence, it's still the same act. Even with Baron Cohen's ingeniously conceived persona, its Pamela Anderson subplot and some of the most eye-popping gags ever to involve a 400-pound naked man, I'm not sure the movie quite merits that Sgt. Pepper's analogy. Something by Foreigner might be more like it.