There must be a way to make people laugh without resorting to scatology, homophobia, racial stereotypes or onanism — but Mars may well be colonized before Hollywood works it out.

“Borat,” the runaway comedy hit of 2006 in the United States and much of the rest of the world, finally makes a belated appearance in Japan, no doubt after much hand-wringing by promotion people here over how to market it. Let’s see, a guy who speaks disjointed English, makes sexist remarks, and gets fall-down drunk — what’s funny about that?

Much of the humor in “Borat” derives from cultural misunderstandings — halfwit journalist and cultural ambassador Borat is sent from benighted backwater Kazakhstan to report on contemporary America for the folks back home who are, as the film would have it, still living in the 19th century.

Director Larry Charles
Run Time 84 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing (May 25, 2007)

Borat travels from New York City to Washington D.C. and then on through the South to Texas and California, encountering such culturally incomprehensible things as feminists, frat boys and flush toilets. His befuddled reactions to all this drive much of the humor. (“In Kazakhstan, it is illegal for five women to be in one place — except brothel or grave,” he tells the unsmiling feminists.)

But the joke cuts both ways, and when Borat attends a mega-church mass where evangelists are speaking in tongues, it’s likely that Japanese audiences will be as stupefied as the confused Kazakh. Borat’s premodern peasant primitivism may make him gullible and ill-mannered, but the mores of modern America are shown to be arcane and equally bizarre.

Leading man Sacha Baron Cohen, a British comedian, has made a career out of playing characters who are both absurdly over-the-top and yet almost plausible, which makes it so much fun when he throws himself up against people who aren’t in on the joke.

Baron Cohen’s most popular creation, the gangsta-damaged B-boy Ali G., would interview people like Newt Gingrich or Posh & Becks and ask the most ridiculously obnoxious questions with an utterly straight face.

Such a shtick can only go for so long until people rumble what’s going on. Ali G. may have burned all his bridges, but Baron Cohen has instead resurrected another one of his creations, Borat, to fool people again. The best bits in this Hollywood production involve Borat encountering people (suckers) who don’t know they’re destined to be in a comedy. (Some — including the Romanian village where “Borat” was filmed, and a group of embarrassingly drunk frat boys — have threatened to sue.)

Take the segment where Borat, on the road across America, appears at a Texas rodeo to sing the national anthem. “We support your war of terror!” he says, and the crowd cheers, not noticing his grammar. “May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child of Iraq!” The cheering actually continues, believe it or not. It’s only when he mangles the national anthem that the crowd gets ugly. Then there’s the cowboy he meets backstage who tells him to shave off his mustache so he doesn’t get mistaken for an Islamic terrorist — you couldn’t make up stuff this weird if you tried.

While it’s fun to see Baron Cohen as Borat take the piss out of random targets on the street — wait till you see him try to kiss some NYC subway-riders — a lot of the intended laughs here are just plain crude and stupid. The first five minutes has jokes about rape, prostitution, abortion, photos of women using the toilet, rabid anti-Semitism, and jacking off to lingerie mannequins in a shopfront window — family fare, this is not, although in our post-“South Park” era, perhaps this has become the norm.

It sure seems like a long time ago when John Waters was considered underground and extreme for using this sort of material, a feeling that’s surely reinforced when Borat gets in a nude fight with his portly producer Azamat (Ken Davitian), who proceeds to smother Borat’s face with his butt.

Perhaps we’ve dumbed down, or perhaps we’re more free to be crude these days. I dunno, but I did laugh long and hard at Borat’s attempt to get a car salesman to sell him a vehicle that comes with a “pussy magnet.” So “Borat” is alternately stoopid and sly, but it throws enough stuff up there to ensure that plenty of it sticks.

Basically, this is the old penchant for “Polack” jokes writ large, with the Kazakhs taking Pole position here, now that Poland is a respectable member of the European Union. It’s hard to see where the new stereotyping came from — my guess is that somebody looked for the country with the smallest box-office intake for American films and said “bingo.”

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