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For 'Borat' audience, first come the gasps, then the laughs

The new TV ads for the cutting-edge reality comedy Borat focus on shots of packed opening-weekend audiences stunned into silence by some hugely offensive statements about women, Jews, gays or slavery, then breaking into convulsive laughter. On the phone from Los Angeles, producer Jay Roach said the filmmakers knew they would get this reaction: "We tested and tested it with audiences."

The testing proved that most audiences would respond with exasperation at Borat's racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny, while retaining their sympathy for the clueless Kazakh TV reporter making a documentary about America and becoming obsessed with Pamela Anderson along the way.

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Of course, the B'nai B'rith, the Russian government and other, less-vocal, groups have registered everything from sheer outrage to worry over whether some audiences will take Borat's antics straight. Russia, in fact, has announced a ban on the film, out of concern for the feelings of neighboring Kazakhstan.

The uproar mystifies seasoned cinematic provocateur John Waters, who says the film "gives us a politically correct way of being politically incorrect." Talking to Roach, a director of such mainstream smashes as the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies, you feel Waters nailed it. "There is an aspect of political correctness which is correct," Roach says. "People should be more respectful of others." But Roach thinks political correctness can mask the "social dysfunction and ignorance" that breed racial and ethnic stereotypes, until they become more mysterious and "much more sinister."

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The glory of Borat, says Roach, is that Sacha Baron Cohen "plays a proud idiot who has idiotic attitudes, so the audience gets that anti-Semitism and misogyny are a backward set of superstitions or fears." As a buffoon, Borat has a license to kill social and political fears and prejudices with his comedy. Whether he's asking an all-too-helpful gun-shop owner for the best weapon to use on Jews or cajoling a van full of drunken frat boys into waxing nostalgic about slavery, "What he's doing is outing the dysfunction in our culture." As Borat, Baron Cohen makes U.S. audiences uncomfortable with their own complicity in the dark side of America. Then he dispels their awkwardness with his comedy.

L.A.-based critic David Ehrenstein - the half-Jewish, half-Catholic, African-American and gay author of a history of gays in Hollywood, Open Secret - agrees with Roach: "Borat throws a wild card into a culture that's become increasingly monolithic and authoritarian."

"It has anarchy, and I'm a fan of anarchy," Waters says. "It shows how weird people are: They can be uptight about one thing and not about another; [during one risible dinner sequence] they can be OK about teaching a man how to wipe himself and then get uptight when there's a hooker at the door. People's limits are very strange."

Many of the movie's fans know that Baron Cohen is an observant Jew who attended Christ's College at Cambridge. As Borat, he intersperses Hebrew and Polish with gibberish. (Roach says the subtitles deliberately have nothing to do with the spoken foreign languages.) Roach admits it comforted him to know that Baron Cohen is Jewish, but he also thinks a viewer's enjoyment shouldn't depend on that information.

Baron Cohen, with the help of his director, Larry Charles (who did some of the best episodes of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm), employs what Roach dubs "anti-anti-Semitism." They strategized using "specific aspects and details of [historical] anti-Semitism" to show the ludicrous outer limits "that have been reached in the depiction of the Jewish people." For example, they patterned images of the giant, horned Jewish heads in the notorious "Running of the Jew" sequence after anti-Jewish propaganda films made before World War II.

In Baron Cohen's ability to bring Jewish humor to the screen even when depicting anti-Semitism, Roach sees the impact of the early Woody Allen. "When I saw Annie Hall, I decided to go to film school. What moved me was his way of having comedy work with layers, including ones about Jews and Gentiles, a big part of his personal anxiety dreams." Baron Cohen's humor, he says, is in the tradition of Jewish comics like Allen: poets of anxiety "who have access to those levels of worry that I don't find as honest or true in a lot of other comedians."

The anxieties of outsiderdom also resonate with gay culture. "In the gay community, [Baron Cohen's] satire of homophobia has been welcomed and seen as the send-up that it is, especially since all the gay comedy we've been getting lately has been provided by the Republican Party," Ehrenstein says.

And Waters says that when Borat spews his ignorance about gay life "while he's going around kissing all the men on the lips, it's hilarious."

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Roach had a far different upbringing. Raised as a Southern Baptist in New Mexico, he now considers himself an agnostic and an amateur student of comparative religion. He has always been simpatico with Jewish thought and culture, and is married to a Jewish woman and his children practice Judaism. He thinks his background is irrelevant though, because he and director Charles dedicated themselves to serving Baron Cohen's vision.

What makes that vision doubly compelling, says Roach, is the question of whether "Sacha Baron Cohen can survive the high-wire act of sustaining his fake character while bringing all those things up, with people who actually think he's filming them for TV in Kazakhstan."

No one could predict how Borat's comic persona would collide with reality.

"All the people who seem real in the film are real," Roach says, and the abhorrent or admirable attitudes they display emerge spontaneously from Borat's interaction with them.

Roach says all the real-life co- stars signed release forms before the crew put them on film. (Any time a person recognized Borat from Baron Cohen's TV work, they stopped shooting.) Roach has praise for Mike Psenicska, a Perry Hall driving instructor, for embodying the side of America that is "hopeful and open and patient and tolerant." But even those who provoke mixed reactions in the audience (and the moviemakers) often could be genuinely compassionate. They expressed concern for Borat's safety and worry that he'd survive his trek across the country - which also proves Baron Cohen's amazing persuasiveness in the role.

To Waters, the difference between the Jackass phenomenon (which he also loves) and Borat is that the Jackass jokers goof on each other while Baron Cohen pulls unsuspecting marks into his game. Waters thinks that's the genius of the movie: "Some of them deserve to be victims [of Borat] and some don't - and the ones that don't come off as heroes. The filmmakers don't write it that way. The characters write it by what they say, and the audience decides whether they're heroes or villains."

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michael.sragow@baltsun.com



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