- Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
- Directed by Jason Woliner
- Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja and Dan Swimer
- Starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova
- Classification R; 95 minutes
So much of my 2020 has been riding on Sacha Baron Cohen. With movies small and large being punted into the great unknown of 2021, cinemas across the world stuck in an unstable pattern of closing/reopening/closing again, and no end in sight to the chaos, it has not been a great year to be a film critic. Or a moviegoer. Or anyone.
So when the news broke late September that Baron Cohen had covertly shot a lockdown-set sequel to his most famous creation, the 2006 satirical firebomb known as Borat, and that he was going to release the film before Election Day, well, I got a little emotional. Finally, a reason to not erase 2020 from the cultural imagination. Finally, a movie – an event – to look forward to without having to brace for the possibility that it would evaporate due to an overabundance of caution.
The potential for setting myself up for disappointment was high. The 2018 Showtime series Who Is America?, Baron Cohen’s most recent attempt at making fools look like even bigger idiots than everyone had already suspected, failed to cause the societal ripples that Borat precipitated. Nor, really, had any Baron Cohen creation since he first unleashed Kazakhstan’s fourth-best journalist on an unsuspecting world almost two decades ago. Bruno, The Dictator and The Brothers Grimsby each dented Baron Cohen’s reputation as a provocateur worth paying attention to – even though all those projects provided ample evidence that we were in the presence of a master satirist. Unsparing, uncomfortable, unforgiving, unforgettable.
Baron Cohen’s Swiftian brilliance can be a lot to digest when it is no longer novel, which is perhaps why a good chunk of the critical establishment unfairly turned their backs to the man after 2016′s The Brothers Grimsby. Or maybe it was that movie’s scene involving copious volumes of elephant semen. Who’s to say? Either way: Ignore Baron Cohen at your own peril. Which is a lesson that far too many people are still learning the hard way, if the Borat sequel is any indication.
Officially titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – though this changes as the movie goes on, to increasingly amusing effect – the new film is an essential piece of 2020 culture, distilling the mania of this cursed year into a compact 95 minutes of jaw-dropping cringe comedy. And while it is a certainty that reactionaries will try to paint Baron Cohen as nothing more than an exploitative prankster, the charge simply doesn’t stick. Instead, others who find themselves in Borat’s sights, including one very high-profile member of Donald Trump’s inner circle, should probably go into hiding right now.
Recognizing that a true Borat sequel is sort of impossible given the character’s ubiquity among everyone from “My wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife”-quoting bros to justifiably wary right-wingers, Baron Cohen, his new director Jason Woliner (replacing long-time collaborator Larry Charles), and his many writers (seven!) push the franchise’s mockumentary conceit further here into the meta-contextual fog. In this film’s world, there is no Baron Cohen, only Borat. So when people recognize this ridiculously mustachioed man walking down the streets of Texas or New York, ostensibly threatening to blow Baron Cohen’s cover, it is a structural feature, not a bug.
Opening 14 years after the events of Borat Sagdiyev’s first “documentary,” the new film finds the onetime darling of Kazakhstan – or at least Baron Cohen’s upside-down-backwater-from-hell version of Kazakhstan – now the shame of the nation thanks to his American antics. But with Trump in the White House, Kazakhstan’s leaders are suddenly confident that they can curry favour with the U.S. administration by sending Borat back overseas, complete with a once-in-a-lifetime bribe for Vice-President Mike Pence.
And so begins a grand road trip for Borat and his stowaway 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), where the two encounter, and delightfully skewer, everyone who embodies contemporary American ignorance. There are anti-abortion activists, social-media influencers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and MAGA acolytes who, in one especially queasy scene, take Baron Cohen’s bait to dark extremes.
Some of the scenes involving real, seemingly unwitting subjects beggar belief. Are these regular all-American folk really so stupid to expose their horrible convictions in front of a camera crew? While Baron Cohen switches outfits to conduct his most incendiary encounters, he is still sporting deliberately obvious prosthetics and costumes, hooking his subjects with the most outrageous provocations. But then again, these are people who actually think that Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of babies, that rape and incest can be waved away as part of God’s plan. Clarity of mind is not the default position here.
To head off the inevitable question of whether or not Baron Cohen deceptively corners innocents into indefensible positions: All the man is doing is handing people a shovel. It’s not his fault that they get straight to digging their own graves. This hard truth is best illustrated in a late-film scene involving a certain someone in Trump’s orbit whom I won’t name, even though I cannot imagine the news cycle not spoiling the gross fun before the movie starts streaming this Friday. The moment has to be seen to be believed.
Also likely to provoke misguided outrage is the film’s ferocious satirization of anti-Semitism. As in the first film, Borat himself is a casual anti-Semite, with Baron Cohen constantly using his alter ego’s cluelessness to underline how pernicious hatred can be. But the filmmaker goes several steps further in his sequel, fuelled by what he sees as a world turned to rot by Holocaust-denying memes spread via Facebook algorithms. The result is an especially ugly kind of comedy – one bit finds Borat visiting a synagogue dressed like a caricature out of the Elders of Zion, remarking on the “very nice weather we have been controlling” – but it is a necessary ugliness straight out of the Mel Brooks playbook.
Not everything in Borat’s new journey is so riotous. The scripted moments between Borat and his daughter devolve into unnecessary filler material, padding out the film until we can get to the next real-world takedown, even though Bakalova is a fearless comic force. One segment juxtaposing Borat’s entry into the workforce against Tutar’s awakening to the destructive lies of the patriarchy isn’t as sharp as the filmmakers seem to think it is. And there is not one single moment as gut-busting, tear-inducing and memory-searing as Borat’s naked fight with his producer Azamat from the first film – though the reveal of that character’s fate in the sequel comes close.
For 2020, though, this new and unexpected Borat is a nice surprise. Very niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting Oct. 23
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