The bad-boy British prankster-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has beady, forlorn eyes offset by a smile that's like a wall of teeth, yet he disappears almost entirely into his characters not because he wears very intricate disguises, but because he plays those characters as if projecting a hidden side of himself. He's a walking cherrybomb id, a fusion of Andy Kaufman and Howard Stern. You may think he's joking, but you don't always know for sure, and the effect is to leave an audience convulsed, and unsettled, with laughter.
As Borat Sagdiyev, a dim-witted, fumbling, thickly mustached star reporter from Kazakhstan who claims to be making a TV documentary for his beloved audience back home, Baron Cohen, in the scandalously rude and funny shot-on-video guerrilla comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, drives from New York to Los Angeles, mingling all the way with real, live homegrown citizens, most of whom have no idea that they're being put on. He talks to humorless middle-aged feminists and a piously dainty Southern dining club, messes with hotel clerks and car dealers and frat-house morons, wanders onto a weatherman's live report and ''accidentally'' smashes up an antiques shop. He even interviews a couple of name politicians, goading them with his toxic How low can I go? barbs (he calls Alan Keyes ''a genuine chocolate face no makeup!''), which he spews in a Euro-Slavic accent so thick it makes his English sound less pidgin than platypus. (When he utters the word ''vagina,'' which is not infrequently, he mangles it into something almost bestial.)
At times, Borat talks like a bad amateur shock jock. He thinks that men are rapists, which to him is a compliment, that women are whorish receptacles (he longs to ''make sexytime'' with Pamela Anderson), that Jews are devils; his view of homosexuals makes Pat Robertson's look lavender. Yet for all the glorious, and jolting, offensiveness of his closed-minded, pea-brained patter, Borat, from what we can see, has no hatred in him. He's as innocent as a child. Baron Cohen makes him the best sort of pest, the kind who preys on people's weaknesses, coaxing out the prejudices they're too polite to expose. He finds solidarity, too with the gun salesman who doesn't blink when asked which gun he'd favor for killing Jews (he recommends the Glock), or the Pentecostal preacher who declares, ''We're a Christian nation now.'' W.C. Fields said you can't cheat an honest man, and Borat, a blinkered, intolerant idiot who brings out the blinkered, intolerant idiot in others, demonstrates that it's hard to make anyone look like more of a lout than he or she already is.
In one of the film's delirious high points, Borat gets trotted out, in a Stars and Stripes shirt and string tie, at a Virginia rodeo, where he gives a speech supporting America's ''war of terror,'' then makes one increasingly bloodthirsty comment after the next. Slowly, hilariously, the crowd devolves from cheers to stunned silence, but not before they've applauded some very bad things. The director, Larry Charles, is a veteran of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and that makes him a perfect match for Baron Cohen, who specializes in the comedy of embarrassment situations so cruel they make you squirm. Borat, in his doltish way, doesn't assault; he exposes. Sometimes literally so: When he and his partner, the sweaty, obese Azamat (Ken Davitian), get into a furious bout of nude wrestling in their hotel room, it's an in-your-face scene in more ways than one. The two scamper through the hotel, still naked, and onto an elevator, which produces a look of priceless fake calm on the part of the other patrons. If the scene comes perilously close to Jackass, it's no reduction of Borat to say that the whole movie is a kind of slapstick psycho-political Jackass. It's a comedy of global insanity in which Borat, the old-world specimen of masculis ignoramus from an underdeveloped half-Muslim nation, stands in for a world we didn't have to think much about before 9/11, and the people Borat talks to become the symbolic heart of America a place where intolerance is worn, increasingly, with pride.
A question: Is all of Borat as ''real'' as the film implies? The scene in which Borat attacks Pamela Anderson is transparently staged. So, to my eyes, are several others. In each case, when I sensed that the people who were being passed off as dupes were in on the setup, the joke fell flat. Why? Because in a comedy that sets its tone with a man letting a live chicken loose on the subway, anything more fake dupes the audience. Yet when Baron Cohen works without a net, he flies.