Sacha Baron Cohen’s Most Infamous Character Returns to America.
DIRECTED BY JASON WOLINER/2020
Finding someone who doesn’t recognize Sacha Baron Cohen’s most famous character is probably about as easy as finding an undecided voter in the United States right about now. (Not very). Yet, somehow they apparently pulled that off. Amazon’s surprise sequel to the 2006 smash hit comedy is, like its predecessor, a writhing blend of enacted comedy and real-life prank ambushes. Tellingly though, Borat himself conceded that he must resort to an array of disguises if his tactics are to succeed in 2020.
Maybe it helps that the original Borat movie’s rewatchablity factor, despite being a monstrously popular comedy at the time, seems to have settled somewhere between 12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List. If the sequel is to emulate even this aspect of the first, then why not make it terminally of-the-moment? Indeed, it’s taken the necessary overthrow of the Donald Trump regime to motivate Baron Cohen to bring Borat out of mothballs.
Stocked with Trump jokes (and even featuring a few of the President’s real-life acolytes), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm serves up its own barbed takes on Melania, blatant racism and antisemitism of the American right, QAnon, Trump’s lady-grabbing boasts, and the administration’s dismal response to COVID-19. It even ends with a quick graphic encouraging viewers to vote. With any luck, all of this will feel awfully dated in just a few weeks, when we’re finally on the other side of the 2020 presidential election.
Moreso than 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the follow-up, fully titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, is surprisingly plot-driven. Upon being released from a government stone-mining prison, the country’s dictator assigns former reporter Borat the task of returning to America and using his celebrity status of winning the favor of Trump. The dictator is jealous, you see, that he’s not in with the other higher profile baddies that Trump’s snuggled up to, like Putin and Kim Jong-un. One other thing: If Borat fails, he will be executed. Cue hilarity!
There’s a great rub, though- her name is Tutar (Maria Bakalova, in a star-making performance). It turns out that Borat has a grown daughter (or as he puts it, a non-male son) living out in the barn. Next thing he knows, she’s stowed away with him to America, causing him to pivot to a new strategy to lure Trump: giving over his daughter as an offering. An Instagram fashion influencer tells Tutar she must be “weak” to be appealing, and that she must get a full makeover and new wardrobe. Her father buys her those things- as well as the nicest cage to live in that his government-issued cash can buy.
Along the way, supposed real-life conservatives are ensnared in Baron Cohen’s contrived awkwardness, much of which doesn’t center on him at all, but Bakalova’s character. To call the gags “lewd” would be both an understatement and a degradation of the term “lewd”. Are they effective? In theory, perhaps. Are they shocking? No. We are, after all, at the end of an exhausting four-year term of President (Mc)Donald Trump. We’re simply not as collectively shockable as we were in 2006 when Borat first “made shit” in front of Trump’s big fancy hotel.
As directed by Jason Woliner, a veteran of several stand-up comedy specials, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm retains the established Baron Cohen Ali G format of nudged reality show-esque ambushes functioning as set pieces within a fictional framework. As a comedy in and of itself, it functions about as well as the first Borat film. Like that film, there’s a fundamental intelligence propelling the whole of it, even as Baron Cohen and company preen about with elitist pride as though their lowbrow guttural gag arsenal is somehow whip-smart. Borat always finds himself in the American South for a calculated reason. That reason is both validated in the racism and ignorance it explores (helped along by Borat’s own racism and ignorance) and undercut by Baron Cohen’s unchallenging (to himself and the viewer) fish-in-a-barrel targeting method.
It’s understandable to be weary going into Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Baron Cohen, when he was secretly filming this over the summer, made headlines by crashing an outdoor righty-tighty political rally wherein he made it onstage and led the crowd in a racially grotesque song (the reality of which reportedly played out quite differently than the complicit singalong that happens in the movie). Yet, the intended surprise bomb-drop of the movie just feels like more unasked-for noise in this already very noisy media moment.
Also, long-after-the-fact sequels by dormant celebrities are legitimately suspect for reasons which this one is far from exempt. For Baron Cohen, finally going back to his most successful well after all this time, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is obviously a chance to reignite his dwindling cache while doing so for the greater good of American democracy. Or, as Borat might put it, for benefit of America the Great Satan’s democratic regime change empowerment on 3rd of November.
We know the deal with the grey suit and the mustache and the thumbs up- and we know the deal with Donald Trump. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, though, isn’t going to convince any of his ardent supporters that they’ve been wrong all along. (Even with that Rudy Giuliani moment that I’m not supposed to talk about… You know, the one that blew up Twitter and the news cycle two days prior to the movie debuting on Amazon. Was that really “just a TUCK”, as the president tweeted? And even if it is, does that make Giuliani any less of a sycophant? Shrug). Baron Cohen’s butt-trumpeting to the choir is an amusing distraction at best, one that tries hard and means well even as carefully edited footage might well be making the specific moments worse than they were. It’s not a documentary, folks.
The true test of any such Baron Cohen film (including both the first Borat and Bruno) is, were it scripted and enacted just as it is, would it still satisfy? Or does it require that “Oh no they didn’t!” infusion of reality? Like the others, this one would be as fine if not better were it simply a traditionally-made movie. At its core, it’s just the story of an anti-semantic misogynist connecting with his daughter amid her own version of a feminist awakening. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm leaves Borat in a different place than when we catch up with him. That’s good, considering that with any luck, it may be quite a while until the next Republican presidency urges Baron Cohen to resurrect the character for yet another visit.