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Originally published Friday, November 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Over-the-top "Borat"

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (though you'll never hear it called anything but "Borat"...

Seattle Times movie critic

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (though you'll never hear it called anything but "Borat") is a television comedy sketch expanded to feature-film length — and, as we know, stretched-out television comedy sketches never work as movies, right? Wrong.

The cheerfully tasteless "Borat" — created by and starring Sacha Baron Cohen (of "Ali G." fame), with a team of co-writers, and directed by Larry Charles — is often screamingly funny and almost never dull, and that's more than I can say for just about every comedy to grace screens this year.

True, "Borat" does occasionally wander near "Jackass" territory: A long central sequence of two nude males (one very overweight) wrestling is only funny because, well, they're naked, and various bits keep dangling where they shouldn't. And yes, some of the humor is intentionally offensive, targeting every group imaginable, but it's so absurdly over-the-top it seems impossible to take seriously.

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," with Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian. Directed by Larry Charles, from a screenplay by Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham and Dan Mazer, based on a character created by Cohen. 84 minutes. Rated R for pervasive strong, crude and sexual content including graphic nudity and language. Several theaters.

The main target, of course, is Borat himself. Played by Cohen in a tired gray '80s suit, Borat Sagdiyev is a top journalist in Kazakhstan who travels to the U.S., with his portly camera operator Azamat (Ken Davitian, a fine sport) in tow, so that his backward country can learn about America. (The closing credits note, just in case anyone's humor-impaired, "Nothing in this film is intended to convey the actual beliefs, practices or behavior of anyone associated with Kazakhstan.") After the grim poverty of his home village, he's dazzled by the wealth of New York, so much so that he tries to kiss people on the subway. And ... well, I won't tell you what he does in front of Victoria's Secret.

In his modest hotel room (to him, it's a palace; he initially thought the elevator was his room), he watches television and is transfixed by a vision: Pamela Anderson, in what he calls, in his bizarrely fractured English, "her red water panties." Determined to find her and make her his wife, Borat and his sidekick acquire an ice-cream truck and a bear (don't ask) and embark on a bizarre road trip across the U.S.

Along the way, they meet up with various Americans — bed and breakfast owners, fraternity brothers, rodeo dudes, Pentecostals — all appearing as themselves and apparently unaware that they're reacting to a fictional character. (All, apparently, signed contracts without reading them too carefully, and some come off — not to put too fine a point on it — like idiots on-screen. Quite possibly, "Borat" lawsuits will soon be in the news.)

But the reason "Borat" works isn't because of the stunt, or the naked wrestling, or even the lime-green thong-swimsuit-from-hell sported by Cohen in an early scene. (My retinas are still recovering.) It works because, at heart, it's a character comedy, and Cohen's carefully honed detail work gives it texture.

Borat stands stiffly in his weary suit as if he's proud of it, his arms straight by his sides and his ever-present grin beaming tirelessly. He's always optimistic, though occasionally shocked at what he sees. Holding a Barbie at a garage sale (held by, he presumes, gypsies), he gasps in horror. "Who is this lady you have shrunk?" he demands. Boorishly charming, he's an innocent abroad.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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