Borat seems to be the sort of movie that can only happen once. Sacha Baron Cohen’s guerrilla filmmaking style is a lot harder to pull off once you know what’s going on, and Borat was the sort of cultural phenomenon back in 2006 that your average person on the street is likely to know that this crazy person accosting them is not on the level. The ability to cut through the guard of your average American and get to the core of who they really are via an undeniably disarming foreign weirdo (as Cohen has done with all of his characters with varying levels of success) is the perfect opportunity for satire, getting them to gleefully say or agree to all manner of outrageous things. But that wouldn’t work today. If you saw Cohen in his full Borat regalia, camera crew in tow, you’d know immediately that things aren’t on the up and up.
And yet, Cohen pushed forward, feeling that 2020, the year of the most contentious election of our time and a global pandemic that has ravaged this country, is the perfect time to reappear in all of his mustachioed glory. His new project, entitled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm for Amazon (though the full title is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), finds the disgraced journalist having been sentenced to a prison camp for the last fourteen years for the affect his first film had on the global reputation of his home nation. He is eventually sentenced to death, only to weasel his way out of it when his country’s leaders tell him to go to America (or, the US and A) and give a famous acting/porn star monkey to Mike Pence as a present and show of good faith that will make Kazakhstan the ultimate allies with the Trump regime, thus returning them to prominence. The catch? The monkey has died in transit, and Borat is forced to improvise by giving a young Kazakhi woman away to Pence as a marriage gift and show of good faith. The woman Borat is charged with giving away to Pence is his own daughter, Tutar (full name Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev, played by actress Maria Bakalova, credited as Irina Nowak), who lives in a barn in disgrace for being the oldest unmarried woman in all of Kazakhstan (she’s 15). Borat’s disdain for the female sex was well established in the first film, and he clearly doesn’t see her as worthy of the trip, but she’s the only thing keeping him from the gallows, so he begrudgingly lets her tag along as he makes his way across America in early 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic starts to rear its head.
It’s notable that Cohen takes on the recognition of Borat as a character immediately, as he is immediately swamped by fans the second he arrives in America. Obviously, this isn’t something Borat as a character would know how to handle, and since he is theoretically on a covert mission from his government, he makes a pit stop at a Halloween store to get some disguises that will let him move around the country unmolested (notably, he finds a knockoff costume of himself, entitled “Stupid Foreign Reporter”). He spends the rest of the film covered in low quality fake beards, makeup and often a fat suit, but it does enough to keep him unrecognizable. Obviously, some of this has to be staged. It’s hard to believe that the two QAnon believers Borat befriends once the US goes on lockdown in the second half of the film aren’t at least to some extent in on the joke. There’s a camera crew in their house! Those considerations do lead to some diminishing returns, as Cohen’s new costumes he rigs up to disguise himself as Borat disguising himself as someone else entirely seem a little too extreme to trick people so easily. It’s shrewd, then, that the film hinges on Nowak/Bakalova, not just for how it shifts the narrative to dress down America’s not particularly great history of gender relations, but to give the cast and crew another new face to prank unsuspecting passers-by who have the misfortune to enter their orbit. Her story of self-discovery is actually almost touching at times, with real life people trying to tell her that she doesn’t have to bury herself in makeup and plastic surgery in order to be a worthwhile person. Sure, it’s all through the twisted lens of parody and prank, but there’s certainly a lot more borderline wholesome material this time around. It makes sense; you can’t make a sequel stand on its own without at least a little bit of these characters reckoning with themselves and what they’ve learned from their experiences. Borat may be a caricature of the highest order, but he’s not entirely incapable of self-examination.
And yes, this is still very much a comedy in the vein of its predecessor, chock full of shock and awe, and all sorts of skin-crawling cringe comedy. But something does feel different this time around. The extreme timeliness of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm can be difficult to swallow sometimes. No one would attempt to argue that 2020 has been a challenging year, between the pandemic, the civil unrest of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, and the continually brazen Trump administration’s actions, and Cohen is unsurprisingly not shy in how he takes on the majority of it. Granted, the fallout of the death of George Floyd doesn’t factor into the proceedings here, but Cohen has plenty of material to work with on the wealth of other insane experiences we’ve had to deal with here. Watching such recent events play out, whether it’s Pence at CPAC proudly talking about how there are only 15 cases in America just a few scant weeks before the country went into a still-ongoing lockdown/quarantine, or gun toting anti-maskers marching for their own twisted understanding of freedom, cuts deep. There’s some levity to be found in Cohen poking fun and revealing these folks to be the fascists they really are, but those sorts of people aren’t exactly lurking in the shadows these days. Some of the content that would have been so scandalous back in 2006 is pretty much old hat at this point. We know who they are. They know we know. It’s all out in the open.
Perhaps because of this (among other issues), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doesn’t always work as well as its predecessor. It takes quite a long time to get going, not really hitting its new stride until Novak becomes more central to the proceedings. But there are new wrinkles to be found as well. There are far more moments of compassion here, perhaps because the world has become so thoroughly depressing that a nonstop and unyieldingly cynical gagfest would be tough to swallow in the midst of a pandemic that managed to derail the very movie we’re watching as it happens. Some people just have good in their hearts, and Cohen doesn’t shy away from showing it. It’s close to home, both in its study of Trumpism and its bastard children (QAnon, anti-maskers, violent anti-liberalism, etc), and in the still very much with us look at how COVID-19 has irreparably changed all of our lives. But it still manages to find those moments of transcendent insanity, the same moments that made the first BORAT film such a cultural touchstone, that cut through the noise. The film’s uproarious and undeniably newsworthy last thirty minutes is when it really hits its stride, faithfully recreating that hand on the forehead “I can’t believe I’m watching this” sort of experience that was a hallmark of its first installment. Indeed, it did not take long for one specific scene involving a well-known lawyer to the President and former mayor of New York to make the headlines days before the rest of the world has a chance to see it. That scene will certainly be what makes Borat Subsequent Moviefilm the talk of the town (especially so close to the election), but there’s certainly much more to dig into beyond its pure newsworthiness. It’s a very strong comedy as well.
As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the sort of movie that you feel like never should have happened. But after watching it, it’s clear that underestimating Sacha Baron Cohen and this fictitious Kazach maniac journalist is truly the last thing you want to do.