- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Take a break, political junkies, and ready yourself for “Borat,” which opens in the Washington area on Friday. It’s easily the funniest comedy of the 21st century, and, in my book, vaults into the top 10 of all time.

At the screening I saw last week, it felt like the audience was experiencing a collective paroxysm of laughter half the time. The other half was spent catching breath and wiping eyes.

I’ll have a piece in Friday’s Show section in which I try to demonstrate why Kazakhstan is all wet about “Borat.” Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who plays Borat, employs Kazakhstan as a tangential diversion. His satire is clearly aimed at us Americans.

Still, I think Time magazine’s Joel Stein overstates things in this otherwise insightful feature:

He writes:

The giant mustache, the mesh underwear, the car dragged by mules, the wine made of fermented horse urine—sure, it seems as if comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is mocking Kazakhstan. He is not. He’s mocking you. After all, you’re the idiot who doesn’t know where Kazakhstan is or if it’s the kind of place where, as Borat claims, there’s a “Running of the Jews.” And more important, you’re the idiot who believes so much in cultural relativism that you’ll nod politely when a guy tells you that in his country they keep developmentally disabled people in cages. Or, worse yet, you’re the person who tells him it’s not a bad idea.

That’s Baron Cohen’s awesome trick: preying on the fear, fascination and, most of all, patronization of the other—the foreigner, the rapper, the gay guy. For the trick to work, we have to believe that other countries are so inferior, it’s plausible that their citizens would wash their faces in the toilet.

Does Stein really think that Baron Cohen’s marks assume all that information, even subconsciously, in their encounters with Ali G or Bruno or Borat? No, I think most Americans, especially the flyover Americans whom Baron Cohen targets, are genuinely not as cynical as Stein suggests. They take Baron Cohen’s characters at face value — and those characters are far more grotesque and outsize than “the foreigner,” “the rapper” and “the gay guy.” Most people find Baron Cohen’s guises impossible to process on a basic, human-interactive level, let alone on one that takes into account cultural relativism or geographical ignorance.

However, there are times when Baron Cohen spends enough time with his marks to make them feel comfortable; and successfully scratches beneath the veneer that overlays most polite discourse with strangers. It’s here that Baron Cohen finds hidden bigotries and idiotic pretensions. Which, I think, is the whole point of the exercise.

Anyway, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of Friday’s paper — and, just as important, see the movie.

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