Sacha Baron Cohen, the Orthodox Jewish comedian from England, has an uncanny ability to make suckers of us all. Case in point: I'm giving even more free publicity to "Borat," the most overpublicized comedy in modern memory.
As you undoubtedly know by now, Cohen plays Borat, a television reporter in Kazakhstan - absurdly depicted as a land where the mentally handicapped are kept in cages, all sisters are for sale (Borat's is the "number-four prostitute in all of Kazakhstan"), and fermented horse urine is the cocktail of choice. Borat is asked by his government to visit the United States and report what he finds for the betterment of all Kazakhs. Hence the full title: "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." So Cohen, never breaking character as a sexist, anti-Semitic yokel from beyond the Urals, catches unsuspecting Americans off guard.
His fumbling antics are inflicted on Americans desperate to be accommodating and polite, even when that means overlooking boorishness to the point of tolerating (alleged) bigotry. Though with the exception of some fraternity brothers from South Carolina, he seems unable to elicit a single American actually saying anything horribly racist or sexist. His hapless victims merely commit the sin of not sufficiently correcting the foreign naif with a thick accent.
Some of the scenes are hilarious, others not so much. But none of it approaches "revolutionary" status, as several critics have suggested. Rolling Stone magazine wonders whether Cohen has created a "whole new genre of film."
We are now well into the second decade of the reality-TV era. MTV's "Punk'd" and "Jackass" play many of the same bull-in-a-china-shop pranks as "Borat." Michael Moore rose to fame catching people off guard and pulling similar stunts. Hidden cameras and undercover reporters are staples of news-magazine shows and have been for a generation. I'm still confused about why so many people think reality TV itself is new. Does no one remember "Candid Camera"? As for the wide-eyed immigrant in a foreign land routine, that's hardly a new act either. Andy Kaufman's Latka Gravas, made famous on "Taxi," beat "Borat" to the punch by decades.
Cohen does put a funny new twist on the routine, and he can be brilliant at it, but judging from the reaction to "Borat," you'd think he'd invented the comedic equivalent of warp drive or something.