Friday, September 08, 2006

Equal-Opportunity Offender Plays Anti-Semitism for Laughs


LOS ANGELES, Sept. 6 — Fall is traditionally when Hollywood turns to more serious films, and the Toronto International Film Festival is where they are frequently shown. But a new movie that seems certain to raise hackles and induce squirming is a raucous comedy that makes its points by seeming to embrace sexism, racism, homophobia and that most risky of social toxins: anti-Semitism.

Screening at midnight on Thursday in Toronto, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” stars the chameleonlike comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as he impersonates a Kazakh reporter touring the United States, bringing his version of Kazakh culture to real-life Americans.

In one scene Borat insists on driving to California rather than flying, “in case the Jews repeat their attack of 9/11.” As he tours the South, he becomes terrified when he learns that an elderly couple who run an inn are Jewish. When cockroaches crawl under the door of his room, he becomes convinced the innkeepers have transformed themselves into bugs, and throws money at them.

In another scene Borat returns to his home village and participates in an annual ritual, “The Running of the Jews,” complete with giant Jew puppets that the villagers beat with clubs.

This anti-anti-Semitic humor is mixed in with other outrageous behavior, including slurs against Gypsies and gays, and a nude wrestling match. But in a world in which resurgent anti-Semitism has become — sometimes literally — an explosive topic, the movie may well hit a particular nerve, especially in Europe.

The British-born Mr. Baron Cohen, who calls himself an observant Jew, has performed this same high-wire comedy act for his HBO series, “Da Ali G Show,” in which he plays three characters, including Borat, each hilariously offensive in its own right.

The title character of the show, Ali G, is a vaguely Muslim British idiot with a hip-hop persona, who was the subject of a rather tame, and unsuccessful, film in 2002, “Ali G Indahouse,” released straight to video in the United States.

With “Borat,” Mr. Baron Cohen — who shares screenplay credit with several others — decided to head straight for the most sensitive areas of politically incorrect global culture, and for the first time will be doing so for a mass audience, far beyond the sophisticated niche of HBO. The film is to be released by 20th Century Fox on Nov. 3 on more than 2,000 screens nationwide.

(Borat is not explicitly Muslim, but Kazakhstan has a large Sunni Muslim population along with a sizable contingent of Orthodox Christians.)

Mr. Baron Cohen, who is appearing in Toronto as Borat, declined to be interviewed for this article and will be conducting interviews ahead of the film only in character.

20th Century Fox also declined to comment for this article or otherwise participate. Executives at the studio said that they were concerned about overemphasizing the political aspects of the humor, or otherwise labeling the movie, which they said they hoped would have broad appeal to a young audience.

The film is experimental and highly unusual for Hollywood, in some ways reminiscent of the guerrilla humor of Andy Kaufman, who baited members of the unsuspecting public with his characters, or the buffoonery of Charlie Chaplin as a Hitler-esque tyrant in “The Great Dictator” in 1940.

Film historians said that Hollywood was usually reluctant to take on controversy in general and had particularly avoided treating anti-Semitism in the past.

“Hollywood has a history of avoiding controversial topics, and notably did so at the end of the 1930’s, with the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism,” said Jonathan Kuntz, who teaches American film history at the University of California, Los Angeles. Studios “were afraid of offending audiences, and of limiting their popularity in the European market,” he added. “And because so many moguls were Jewish, they were afraid this would be used to attack Hollywood as anti-Nazi.”

Today too Hollywood is often reluctant openly to discuss anti-Semitism, as was evidenced by the careful debate over Mel Gibson’s 2004 blockbuster, “The Passion of the Christ.” Only when Mr. Gibson was heard making anti-Jewish slurs this summer during a drunken-driving arrest did a few Hollywood veterans speak out against him.

“Borat” was to some extent made outside the Hollywood system. Fox kept the film off its production list and created a separate company, One America, to be the nominal producer. Mr. Baron Cohen also ran into creative differences with his first director, Todd Phillips, who left the production last year, while the film shut down for five months. The veteran comedy director Larry Charles eventually completed the film.

A spokesman for Mr. Baron Cohen said that Mr. Phillips’s departure was “a mutual decision.”

During the shoot Fox ignored numerous protests from the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, whose officials were concerned about the depiction of their country as prejudiced.

Early indications are that the film will be a hit. It rocked audiences with laughter at the Cannes Film Festival, where Mr. Baron Cohen was photographed on the beach wearing a neon-green kind of thong, and won an audience award at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan this summer.

Still, “I can almost guarantee you that not everyone will get the joke,” said Richard B. Jewell, a professor of film history at the University of Southern California. But he added: “In my opinion it’s a very healthy thing. Some of best films that have been made in the last 50 years have been black comedies.” He cited “Dr. Strangelove,” which poked fun at nuclear holocaust.

“What can be more serious?” he asked. “It makes people think about these things in ways they don’t when there are more straightforward, serious, sober films.”

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