Sacha Baron Cohen, modern cinema’s man of many faces (well, three anyway) has wrung a good deal of success from his various personae. His first character, the clueless gangsta wannabe Ali G, enjoyed a good run in the UK, where he would conduct pseudo-interviews with political figures and celebrities who weren’t in on the joke. Ali G’s popularity never really extended to American shores, aside from a short-lived HBO series and a straight-to-DVD movie. That ship has sailed anyway, for – as is the nature of such efforts – once enough people get wise to the gag, it loses its effectiveness.

Enter Cohen’s next creation, Borat Sagdiyev. A Kazakh TV reporter with predilections that run to the scatological, Borat began as a minor character (based on a Russian doctor Cohen once met) on Ali G’s program. This time around, Cohen has apparently determined that the best approach for this character is not a prolonged build-up on television, but rather a feature film that captures Borat’s assault on the United States, an assault that never lingers long enough to allow people the opportunity to catch on. The hope being that the filmed results will be sufficiently humorous to sustain an 82-minute movie.

Are they ever. “Borat” (full title “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”) hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until the end credits. From the opening scenes in Borat’s beloved Kazakhstan (actually Romania, as the Kazakh government were understandably enraged at Cohen’s portrayal of their nation as a bunch of Central Asian trailer trash) to his disastrous attempts to woo Pamela Anderson, “Borat” isn’t just one of the funniest movies of the year, it might be one of the funniest movies of all time.

What little plot there is involves Borat’s government sending him to America – the “greatest country in a world” – to learn how to make Kazakhstan a better place. Once there, however, he becomes enamored with the beautiful “CJ” from the television program “Baywatch” and decides to set out across the country to find her. He and his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) drive from New York City to California, for reasons I won’t go into here. Along the way, they have many adventures with the people they encounter, whose reactions to the foreign “reporter” and his bizarre mannerisms vary dramatically.

Not that pretending to be ignorant is a novel comedic concept (fake interviews and news programs have been around far longer than “The Onion” or “The Daily Show”), but Cohen takes it to an entirely new level, never breaking character even when his own personal safety is threatened. Witness a Virginia rodeo crowd’s reaction to Borat replacing the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with those of the alleged Kazakh national anthem, or angry New Yorkers rejecting his friendly overtures on a subway.

Even better are the things Cohen is able to get his subjects to say and do, none of which I want to spoil here, but for every hostile reaction he encounters there are plenty of friendly folks who want to help him out and offer advice. Incredibly, all are seemingly oblivious to the fact that a camera is recording their every word (I’m thinking particularly of the guy who advised him on the best vehicle for running down Gypsies). I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, but rest assured I was in awe for the lion’s share of the movie. I’m also going to have to see it again, as I was laughing so hard during some scenes I missed entire chunks of dialogue.

Cohen has created an instant classic, though it makes you wonder how effective the upcoming movie based on his gay fashonista character “Bruno” will be. While Fox’s decision to slash “Borat’s” number of opening weekend screens (a move similar in many ways to their hamstringing of Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy”) may keep Cohen from becoming a household word over here in the “greatest country” just yet, one gets the feeling this might be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Either way, you owe it to yourself to see it. Twice.

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