God I love these titles. Okay, so let me take you back to 2006. I’m 24, just getting started in my career, and in one of the few instances where several of my coworkers and I had a common night off, we all decided to go to the local movie theatre on the opening night of the original Borat film. I had never seen Da Ali G Show, so while I was aware of the existence of the character of Borat, I had no frame of reference for the style of comedy. There were six of us that night, and amazingly, we all found seats together in the sold out auditorium. I was sitting on the end of our row.
It was a good thing, too, because we were all laughing so hard throughout the movie that I actually had to stick my leg out to brace and prevent myself from literally rolling in the aisles. I can’t remember a time when I laughed that hard watching a movie. I had to catch my breath several times. I was crying. I laughed so hard it literally hurt. But the best part was, so was everyone else. The original Borat was one of the greatest shared experiences in a movie theatre I’ve ever had.
But like all great art, it was also controversial and polarizing. Case in point, I saw it again a few weeks later with my sister and her now-husband. We were the only three in that particular auditorium, and I was the only one laughing. My brother-in-law, apart from a few chuckles, didn’t care for the humor, and my sister was downright traumatized during the “wrestling” scene.
Outside of the very small sample size of my immediate family, there were lawsuits filed by the dumb frat boys who said racist and sexist stuff because they considered it entrapment (it wasn’t), conservative media had a field day taking everything way too seriously, and even the actual Kazakhstan censored the film for a time. Whatever your opinions on the first film, it’s hard to argue with the sheer power such an absurd parody could wield in its moment. Even if you don’t like the movie, you have to at least admire that.
Now, 14 years later, we have the follow-up, or “Subsequent Moviefilm.” Is it as uproariously funny as the first one? No, and honestly, it wouldn’t have been possible. As Baron Cohen demonstrates in this sequel, Borat as a character is so recognizable that the ruse simply can’t be done the same way it was before. People are on to him. He’s famous now, for better or worse, almost a folk legend, larger than life because of his time at the center of the American zeitgeist. By necessity, things would have to be different this time around, which makes it something of an apples-to-oranges comparison to put one against the other in terms of quality.
What I will say, though, is that there are still numerous gut-busting laughs, to the point that this is easily the funniest film of 2020 so far, and it’s not likely to cede that title. But in the areas where the film was forced to make changes from the first go-round, it largely succeeds. The story is strong, the TWO lead performances are expert, the satire is not only on point but basically unfolding in real time, and much more than last time, the film shines a light on some of the real problems with our society.
Right from the start the film acknowledges its own controversy, as Borat Sagdiyev begins the movie in a forced labor camp after his previous outing made Kazakhstan a laughingstock. However, he is granted a reprieve from the head of the government in exchange for a mission. As President Donald Trump (hilariously called “McDonald Trump” in the film – you gotta love his hamburders) has spent his term in office cozying up to dictators and strongmen, the Premier of Kazakhstan would also like to gain Trump’s favor, in hopes of helping the country recover. As such, Borat is given a life-or-death mission to deliver a gift to Vice President Mike Pence as a bribe. Upon arriving back in the “US&A,” and making preparations, Borat is shocked to discover that instead of the intended monkey he was going to deliver, his daughter Tutar (Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, making her American debut) has stowed away in hopes of bonding with the father she never knew she had. This forces Borat to change his plans for the bribe, as well as take on new “cultural learnings” when it comes to women’s rights and feminism.
This might be the biggest departure from the first film. The original Borat movie was, for the most part, a series of vignettes and pranks, with a subplot about a sudden obsession with Pamela Anderson firmly in the background until the third act. This film, on the other hand, has a much more structured, linear plot. Borat has to deliver the gift, then come up with a new plan once that fails, pull the Kazak version of My Fair Lady with his daughter, and actually evolve as a person before he can regain his normal life as a journalist. Some of the plot beats are obvious, like the inevitable fight and separation of Borat and Tutar at the end of Act II, but on the whole it was surprising how smooth the story felt, and even weirder, how strangely affecting it was on an emotional level. There’s genuine pathos and character development, to the point that you can set the antics aside and actually empathize with these caricatures. I never thought I’d say that about BORAT of all things.
It also really helps that the two leads are as fully committed as they could possibly be. We know how great of a character actor Sacha Baron Cohen is, but Maria Bakalova is with him step for step, equaling his zaniness and even occasionally outdoing him. While this hilarious story is going on and a father/daughter bond is growing, I couldn’t help but feel a meta teacher/student dynamic. The character of Tutar is learning about the world from Borat, but Bakalova herself is learning comic timing and madcap hijinks from Sacha Baron Cohen at the same time, and it works so well it’s almost hard to believe. It’s like he’s showing her, “This is how you make uptight people and idiots uncomfortable. Now fly, little birdie!”
The jokes are solid, but I will say, not quite as good as the original. Again, part of this is just due to the fact that because Borat is a such recognizable character now, even more effort has to go into even the simplest gags to pull them off. The need for more elaborate costumes – or the need to use Bakalova as the primary prankster – at times prevents the leads from taking some of the bigger risks that Sacha Baron Cohen could do last time. The ruse was completely unsuspected in the previous film, whereas now they have to take extra steps, which pulls some of the sting out of the punchlines.
Also, some of the jokes, while still funny, are a bit too obvious to truly make me gasp. There’s a nice bit about Tutar swallowing a plastic baby from an “It’s a Boy” cupcake and then going to a Crisis Pregnancy Center to unsettle a priest who refuses to perform abortions. It’s funny, certainly, but it’s also basically the sitcom trope of a misunderstanding. At any point it would be easy to explain that she swallowed a plastic thing and needs to expunge it, but instead it’s “I have a baby inside me. Can you take it out?” followed by a slew of implied incest jokes. It’s worth a chuckle, but c’mon, Borat, you’re better than that. Same goes for showing up at CPAC in a Klan uniform. I laughed, sure, but it’s more on the nose than the literal jokes he makes about stereotypical Jewish noses.
That said, when the jokes shine, they really shine. Learning the fate of Borat’s producer from the previous film, Borat’s first foray into Google, and his description of Mike Pence are top notch. I think my favorite was a Disney-fied version of Trump and Melania’s marriage, which had me laughing so hard that I nearly dropped my laptop on the floor.
Oddly enough, though, one of the best moments of the film is somewhat unintentional. Like the original, this is framed as a documentary, with Borat’s public image serving as something of a real-time version of the Observer Effect. But like an actual documentary – the Oscar-winning Icarus comes to mind – real-world circumstances alter the production and change the story. In Icarus, what began as a simple experiment in doping for a bicycle race turned into an exposé about the entire Russian doping scandal that got them banned from the Olympics.
Here, the process started late last year, when Sacha Baron Cohen began pranking Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, as well as the owner of a driving range. Those scenes didn’t make the final cut of the film, but are seen in the trailer. Borat’s offer of a bribe to Mike Pence occurs at the CPAC convention, which took place in February, right as the COVID-19 outbreak was starting. The film even shows Pence mentioning that at the time there were only 15 cases in the United States. But then, as we all know, things got a whole lot worse, and the world went to Hell.
By its very nature, the pandemic caused a shift in the entire production. Streets were empty, social gatherings were few and far between, and this country entered a new normal that still hasn’t settled, no matter how many times Trump says we’ve rounded the corner. This made Baron Cohen’s public appearances more conspicuous, to the point that he created a wholly different Observer Effect completely by accident. When he was spotted singing a racist song at pro-gun, anti-mask rally in Washington, it fueled speculation that another Borat movie was coming. When Rudy Giuliani’s people went on Twitter and bragged about stopping a plot by Baron Cohen to embarrass “America’s Mayor,” it only became more clear what was going to happen. In a documentary, you go where the story takes you, and in this case, the story took Baron Cohen and Borat in a direction that certainly wasn’t planned. Thankfully, though, since this is a work of fiction, the story can be retroactively changed to still make it seem coherent.
But above all else in this film, there’s a clear message about the rise of authoritarianism and the spread of misinformation. The movie never uses the phrase, “fake news,” because the filmmakers are smarter than that, and they give us credit as an audience to be smarter than that, but there are a lot of moments throughout where the satire illustrates how easy it is to convince people of things that are just obviously false to anyone with common sense or even the most elementary critical thinking skills. Borat shacks up with a couple of QAnon fans who believe Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of children. Borat himself has to confront stereotypical beliefs about Jews and the Holocaust (a hilarious bit of reverse psychology humor for the latter). Tutar carries a handbook for Kazak fathers on how to “own” their daughters rather than giving them rights.
The Rudy Giuliani situation is a perfect encapsulation of this issue. For what it’s worth, the images of his hand down his pants that have circulated recently are pretty innocuous in the film. I’m pretty sure he was just tucking in his shirt rather than doing anything creepier than usual. The leaking of the footage was in response to Giuliani shopping a story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter that is so absurd as to almost be laughable on its own. But that’s the problem. He and people like him are so delusional and desperate to hold power that they’ll literally make up anything because they know it’s easy to believe when people are conditioned to distrust reputable sources. Even in the moment that this scene was filmed, Giuliani is on camera saying, with no hint of irony, that China manufactured the coronavirus and spread it around the world, though he concedes that it probably wasn’t spread by people eating bats (a huge disappointment for him, I’m sure). After Borat intruded, he apparently called the police. His press people were immediately on social media painting this picture of a gallant hero in Giuliani thwarting Sacha Baron Cohen’s attempt to embarrass him, because the narrative is more important than the facts, which are right there, completely unedited, showing that Giuliani is just as much an insane jamoke and schmuck as he’s always been. If he had the capacity to be embarrassed, he would have done it to himself, no matter what Baron Cohen did.
That last bit is really the motivation for the film, and why Sacha Baron Cohen brought the character out of retirement. He began two years ago, using Borat to encourage people to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. The only way to stop fascists is to vote them out before they completely seize power, and to have the courage to wade through the bullshit. This makes it all the more funny that the final message of the film is “NOW VOTE. OR YOU WILL BE EXECUTE!” I’m casting my ballot tomorrow.
Availability: Amazon Prime
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Were you a fan of the original film? Is Borat’s sister still #4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan? Let me know!