How did a small, offbeat movie that purports to depict a Kazakh journalist chronicling his trip across America strike a chord in the American psyche – and at the box office?
By being a "painfully" funny satire, say experts and moviegoers.
In unscripted scenes with ordinary Americans, Borat Sagdiyev's adventure in "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" hits hard at biases in the "US and A," in Borat-speak.
In particular, the character, Borat, played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, shows how the South is fertile ground for such a movie.
As Borat travels south of the Mason-Dixon line, he encounters gambling hip-hoppers in Atlanta, misogynistic fraternity boys from South Carolina, antigay rodeo bosses, and reveling Texas Pentecostals who introduce him to "Mr. Jesus." "On one level it's the lowest of low-brow humor that makes slipping on a banana peel look like Masterpiece Theater," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "But what's going on is also really complex. If you're a thoughtful person who cares about how we treat other people and how they're portrayed, you leave the movie really kind of perplexed as to how you responded."
The movie topped the box office when it opened last weekend, netting $26.5 million.
Part of the movie's appeal comes because Borat is able to disarm people in his travels with a stilted accent and an unsophisticated manner. Yet he jokes about his mentally retarded brother. When he talks of shooting Jews, a gun dealer appears unfazed, though he doesn't sell him the gun. Later on, a rodeo boss rails against Muslims and gays.
The movie "somehow fits with a world in turmoil," says Stefan Groschel, a German pre-med student waiting to see "Borat" outside Atlanta's Atlantic Station. "It's an opportunity to let some steam off."
Not everyone was laughing when it came to how the South was portrayed. When Borat stopped in Birmingham, Ala., to learn traditional Southern manners, he met Cindy Streit: an etiquette specialist who focuses on cultural diversity training.
"His brand of humor depends on innocent victims, and we were his innocent victims," says Ms. Streit, who hosted a dinner party that went awry. "He baits people and opens a subject, allowing people to either fall into a trap or to say their own feelings."
Streit was appalled when she saw the movie, especially by a scene with three drunken frat boys in an RV complaining about how "minorities have all the power."
But though she doesn't want her teenage grandsons to see the movie, she says they now look at her with new respect after her meeting with the offbeat Kazakh hero.
" '[Borat]' flies in the face of what I think is decent about America, but evidently about $100 million worth of people thought differently," she says.
Indeed, the audience at an Atlanta theater on Monday included Europeans, Asians, blacks, whites, gays, and, sure, even Pentecostals.
"I grew up in a Pentecostal church, and I had to shut my eyes and just hope he wouldn't do anything that was too bad," says Chad Hickey, a young Atlantan who had just seen the film. Mr. Hickey admits that the film touched on his own upbringing. But he still laughed. African- Americans laughed at a joke about a "chocolate-face" Alan Keyes.
Mr. Thompson says that 20 years ago, the movie wouldn't have been a hit. But now its riffs on Jews, Muslims, and places that end in "stan" creates the same kind of knowing discomfort that draws people to roller coasters.
"Everybody brings to the theater a completely different set of prejudices and values, and this movie can be funny to all of them," says Thompson. "You can have a theater filled with 200 people, everybody laughing their fool heads off, and each one could be laughing for very different reasons."
So, who is the joke ultimately on?
"In the end, I think all this speaks well for the Americans," says Mr. Groschel. "They have enough of a sense of humor about themselves to go see this movie."
• AP material was used in this report.