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The Bottom Line: Sexy Time Has Come for Cohen’s ‘Borat’

Very nice.

For years, Sacha Baron Cohen’s made unsuspecting celebrities and politicians writhe with displeasure at the offensive questions posed to them by his comic alter egos.

Now he’s hoping to reap the rewards of poking fun at anti-Semites, misogynists and class-conscious twits with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. This is the second film to feature one of Cohen‘s faux TV correspondents, the first being the awful Ali G Indahouse.

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It’s hard to imagine any comedian—with the obvious exception of Andy Kaufman—being as committed to his characters as the perpetrator of HBO’s Da Ali G Show. Long before crossing the pond to ambush Pat Buchannan and Andy Rooney, Cohen would only give interviews in his native England in the guise of would-be gangsta Ali G. Even now, Cohen‘s tirelessly plugging the controversial but hysterical Borat as its mustached Kazakh TV reporter.

If you had not seen Da Ali G Show, then you probably weren’t familiar with Borat and the inflammatory questions he politely asks and the observations he makes in his broken English (even Mel Gibson would be aghast at Borat’s feelings toward Jews). But Cohen—who is Jewish—has done everything he can to make the world take notice of Borat. He kicked off his guerrilla-style tactics P.R. campaign by parading around Cannes in a green thong bikini. He introduced Gnarls Barkley at the MTV Movie Awards. He went to Washington D.C. to invite “Premier George Walter Bush” to see Borat. Even the Kazakh deputy foreign minister—desperate to downplay the image of his countrymen as horse urine-drinking, homophobic rapists put forth by Borat—played into Cohen‘s hands by begging him to visit Kazakhstan.

By now, it’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing Borat is as real as his beloved Pamela Anderson’s breasts. But, according to distributor Twentieth Century Fox, that’s not the case. “Our research showed it was soft in awareness,” Bruce Snyder, Fox’s distribution chief, told the L.A. Times of Borat.

And Fox is scaling back Borat‘s Nov. 3 debut from 2,000 to 800 screens, before expanding to 2,200 screens on Nov. 10. If Fox’s planned rollout allows an ignorant Middle America to get the joke, then Borat could easily earn back its measly $17 million budget.

It would be a shame if Cohen‘s time and efforts proved to be a waste, especially as Borat easily transcends its hype. Unlike the narrative-driven Ali G Indahouse, Borat finds Cohen doing what he does best: conducting man-on-the-street interviews designed to shock and/or reveal his subjects’ prejudices. The result is perhaps the funniest—and most vulgar and politically incorrect—comedy in years.

But Cohen doesn’t really need to worry if Borat‘s uncompromising view of America sentiments alienates audiences. Borat‘s already opened doors in Hollywood for Cohen. With Talladega Nights proving he can work wonders with a character he didn’t create, Cohen‘s contemplating a role as Johnny Depp’s rival in Tim Burton’s film version of the Broadway musical Sweeney Todd.

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Cohen needs a Sweeney Todd more than a Sweeney Todd needs him, assuming he wants a long and lasting career in Hollywood. Even if warranted, a Borat sequel would be impossible now that the cat’s out of the bag. Cohen does plan to shoot next summer Bruno, featuring his Da Ali G Show’s gay fashion correspondent. But will Universal keep its reported $42 million offer for worldwide distribution rights on the table if Borat flops? If Borat doesn’t connect with audiences, why would Bruno?

Besides, it’s a bad idea for Cohen to repeat himself so soon after Borat with Bruno. He could quickly become pegged as a one-trick pony. So before he starts shooting Bruno, he needs to step out of character(s) and allow America to put a face—and a name, for that matter—to the man behind Borat. And getting snippy with Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd could go a long way to making that happen.

The Bottom Line
If “jagshemash” creeps into everyday conversation in Peoria, Ill, Cohen‘s succeeded in turning his mockumentary into a true cultural phenomenon. Regardless, Borat‘s blurring of fact and fiction may result in the make-believe Kazakh TV reporter becoming more famous in the United States than his creator. So the more Cohen does to distance himself from Ali G, Borat and Bruno, the better.

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