Fourteen years have passed since Sacha Baron Cohen crashed cinemas with Borat, skewering American Bush-era xenophobia to, as the titular Kazakh journalist would say, “great success.” By now, the ability of Cohen’s stereotype amalgam to reflect American bigotry and idiocy has aged, as most flash-in-the-pan comedy sensations do. Immediately following the film, things got seemingly better in terms of the national climate; later that veneer was unmasked, and the exact psychosis Cohen was lampooning proved to have only gotten even worse.
Which makes for the potentially perfect time for Cohen to revive his retired character in sequel Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, if only to mark the evolution of America’s white nationalism and misogyny over the past fifteen years. But what Cohen and director Jason Woliner underestimate is how dangerous his clueless subjects have become, how naive it seems to position their witlessness as impotent or without grave consequences.
This go-around finds Borat released from jail in his home country, after the metafictional success of the previous film found him punished for bringing Kazakhstan global shame. He is sent by the government to appease the Trump administration, offering his fifteen-year-old daughter Tatur as a bride for vice president Mike Pence. Once again, we’re served a cross-country odyssey of backwards fish-out-of-water farce on a broad national canvas. The targets this time are ambitiously wider – from Facebook, to Trump rallies, to smart phones, to Holocaust deniers – but the landing is less fatal in comic impact. Filmed in semi-secret mid-pandemic, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is more cute than subversive.
This attempt leans closer towards staged sketches than the first film’s tricks on unwitting participants, and that’s likely because Borat’s popularity no longer allows the performer to hide in plain sight. The film delivers much of the gags you expect from the same format but minus any sense of spontaneity from the people he interviews, and most of them seem to know what’s really going on this time. The film’s only element of surprise is that it happened: delivered in the weeks leading up to the presidential election, the stunt of its existence is one that none of its parts can really match.
The thin layer of dust that covers Cohen’s pranks isn’t hidden by how the film stumbles to speak to a year that has unfurled at a rate that has been impossible to keep pace with. With the ceaseless hell of 2020’s punishments making last week feel like eons ago, much of the film feels like yesterday’s news – or yesterday’s jokes.
But as Cohen’s become more recognizable, the conservative Americans he skewers have gotten no more guarded in casually revealing their toxicity. It’s simply become harder to laugh at these people. Borat is no longer a simple reflection of their own bigotries in the form of someone they despise, spouting off everything vile they earnestly believe; now, they are too dangerous in what they enable, their threat of violence much more conceivable. It’s simply become much harder to laugh at these people. In some way, the two films can be taken as comparative time capsules. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm works best to highlight how much of a warning should have been taken from the first film, aside from its bawdiness.
Some of that direness is met with this film’s attempt at genuine sweetness between Borat and his daughter Tutar. Newcomer Maria Bakalova plays the young woman with an audacity and boldness to match Cohen’s, imbuing her self-awareness and growing autonomy with a believability that gives the film its most focused sequences. Their relationship makes American misogyny the film’s most successfully unpacked of its scattershot subjects, and rescues it out of the grimness of all that surrounds it.
Good for a few solid laughs before it evaporates from your mind, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm shows a moderately impressive effort given the circumstances, but is still largely encumbered by the success of its predecessor. It’s not quite a fool’s errand for Cohen and team to try to work around his lack of anonymity, but the strain to go unseen all but deflates the precise balance in his satire-stunt act.