By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- "Borat" is so gut-bustingly funny it should carry a health warning.
If you don't get HBO and remain oblivious to the YouTube viral marketing campaign, you need to know that Borat Sagdiyev is a roving reporter, the sixth most famous personality in his native Kazakhstan.
Tall and skinny with a moustache as thick as his accent, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) appears polite, candid and eager to please, even as he utters rabidly sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic sentiments. (Watch why they're not laughing in Kazakhstan -- 2:34)
Baron Cohen is a British comedian (and Cambridge graduate) best known for his alter ego Ali G, a mentally challenged rapper who duped a succession of rich and powerful Brits into making fools of themselves on prime time, then switched his operations Stateside when he became too famous back home. (He once coaxed Pat Buchanan to agree Saddam used BLTs on the Kurds.)
If Ali G suckers the egos and condescension of the elite, Borat is a more insidious satirist, playing on the courtesy of ordinary folk to expose their latent prejudice. In his most notorious stunt, he led a barroom crowd in a singalong of that traditional Kazakh ditty, "Throw the Jew Down the Well."
Like Baron Cohen's TV show, "Borat" the movie has a mockumentary format, with Borat gleaning insights into Western culture for the edification of his compatriots, often with the aid of interviewees who are definitely not in on the joke.
The belly laughs begin with the prologue, a rampantly politically incorrect introduction to the peasant village Borat calls home. There, inbreeding is rife, women are chattel and entertainment comes in the form of poking fun at the disabled or celebrating the ritual "running of the Jews." (The government of Kazakhstan has already expressed its displeasure at these outrageous slurs.)
Soon Borat is setting off for what he persists in calling "the U.S. and A.," with producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) in tow.
Appropriately enough, his first subject is a New York humor consultant, who patiently explains that retardation and race are not considered appropriate subjects for comedy. (Too late!) Instead, he coaches him in the art of "not" jokes. It's some mark of Baron Cohen's delicious improvisational skills that he makes even this most irritating of comedy tropes funny, though -- typically -- it sails over the head of the exasperated expert.
But what Borat really wants is to hook up with Pamela Anderson, and it's when he leaves the East Coast on a transcontinental road trip that the trip really gets interesting. American movies have been testing taboos around bad taste with some vigor over the last decade, but "Borat" takes bad manners to the level of an art form.
It's amazing what this humble Kazakh can get people to do -- or not do.
At a dinner with a party of hospitable Southern Christians (who live on Secession Drive), the disarming outsider "innocently" makes ever-greater demands on their forbearance. The scene is a tour-de-force of social discomfort, and it's only when Borat invites a black hooker into the house that his hosts finally draw the line and throw both of them out.
A later scene with a group of frat boys ends with them lamenting the demise of slavery.
But it's at the Imperial Rodeo in Virginia that Baron Cohen enjoys his finest hour. First he elicits anti-Islamic and homophobic comments from the rodeo manager, one Bobby Rowe. Then he stands up in front of the entire crowd and delivers a rousing speech pledging support for "Premier" Bush's "the war of terror."
The crowd keeps right on whooping as Borat describes the righteous slaughter that will descend on Arab women and children in increasingly bloodthirsty detail. Their cheers only die out when he massacres "The Star-Spangled Banner" by substituting the lyrics of (allegedly) the Kazakh national anthem. It's an extraordinarily brave performance -- so startling that one of the attendant flag-bearers is nearly thrown from his horse.
Taken at face value, this is certainly the most anti-Semitic American movie ever made -- all the more shocking because Baron Cohen is a devout Jew. But this is a film about racism, not a racist film. By saying the unsayable, Borat encourages others to do the same, with depressing -- but very funny -- results.
If there is any justice Sacha Baron Cohen will walk away with this year's Academy Award for best actor, Pamela Anderson on his arm. Maybe someone should throw in a Pulitzer for undercover reporting, too.
But for all its hilarity, "Borat" cuts deep. Satire, as everyone from Jonathan Swift to the Onion could note, is not a business for the faint of heart. How will this "cultural learning" play with mainstream American movie audiences when they realize the joke is predominantly on them?
"Borat" runs 82 minutes and is rated R. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here.
Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat stuns the crowd at a Virginia rodeo.