Sacha Baron Cohen returns to mess with America once again, but finds it hard to troll a populace that’s already trolling themselves.
When Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan premiered in 2006, it felt like a shot in the arm to the cringe-comedy era we were living in, not to mention a darkly comic glimpse into the vagaries of Bush-era America. In scene after wince-inducing scene, the boundary-pushing subject at its center (Kazakhstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev, played to absurd, straight-faced perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen) revealed the lengths to which American politeness will take us, as well as the terrible things we’re willing to reveal about ourselves when we think someone’s on our level.
But the world’s changed since then, and we’re now run by figures as callow and caricatured as any Cohen character. The masks, to beg a COVID-pertinent pun, are off. And just a couple of weeks before the most anxiety-inducing election in American history, Cohen and crew have dropped Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, secretly filmed over the last couple of years. While it captures a glimmer of that Borat magic, it also reveals the ways in which the world has made these kinds of political pranks virtually impossible.
This time, though, there are a few new wrinkles in Borat’s journey — ripped from the gulag (where he’s spent the last fourteen years afte the first “documentary” turned Kazakhstan into a global joke), he’s sent back to America to (eventually) give away his tattered, estranged daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to “Vice Premier” Michael Pence as an olive branch for the new administration.
What’s more, Borat’s become so well-known in the US that he has to put on additional disguises just to stay undercover (which also serves as a nifty workaround for Cohen to stay undercover now that the character is ubiquitous in American pop culture).
From there, we see his efforts to prepare Tutar for Pence, from bringing her to a dolled-up Instagram influencer to talk about how women “need to be weak” to a plastic surgeon who begrudgingly agrees to use potatoes as breast implants for her.
In fits and starts, the nuts and bolts of Borat essentially works, especially in the hands of director Jason Woliner (a TV comedy director with experience in cringe-doc shows like Nathan for You and Jon Benjamin Has a Van). Cohen’s perfectly coiled sense of confrontational comedy is as well-honed as ever, even if it seems like the only potential marks he’s got left are the kinds of folks who already believe in QAnon and life beginning at conception.
Maybe that’s why the sequel is so plot-heavy: in between the mockumentary setups, Borat and Tutar use the road trip to bond, scenes which work mostly through the sheer buoyancy of Cohen and Bakalova’s performances. (While Cohen’s great, the sequel’s a killer showcase for Bakalova, matching Borat’s droll naivete with an almost feral ferocity; she gets her fair share of prank setpieces, including interrupting a Christian woman’s conference to share the story of her first orgasm, and she handles them capably.)
But for all of Cohen’s impeccable comic timing, big stretches of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm just don’t work like they used to. In the fourteen years since Borat was released, America’s moved beyond parody — the kind of outrageous, openly racist and jingoistic stuff Cohen would have to carefully maneuver people to say is the stuff we’d see on the morning news.
The stink of Trump’s cartoonish braggadocio is all over the country and the film itself, which occasionally lapses into the kind of 2017-era #resistance blue-wave jokes about ‘grab her by the pussy’ and Pence calling his wife “Mother” that we’ve already moved on from. Except for the film’s final act, which dumps Borat in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, this film may as well have been made six months after the inauguration. (You can see the seams of where the original plans for the sequel would have gone if not for COVID, though I appreciate Woliner and crew’s flexibility.)
Honestly, it may not be the filmmakers’ fault that the gags don’t land as hard as they used to: after all, the shine is off America’s much-vaunted importance on the world stage, and all the humiliating things about our collective id have been laid bare over four years of Donald Trump tweeting from the White House. When we see two hunters who take Borat in during COVID, we’re just counting down the minutes until they talk about adrenochrome, and ominously lament that Democrats “unfortunately have the same rights we do.” Plus, Cohen’s own inability to stay out of the news ruins some of the film’s biggest setpieces, like the 3% rally he infiltrated in disguise where crowds of maskless, gun-toting militiamen chant along with a song about cutting up Barack Obama “like the Saudis do.”
It’s still worth a watch, if only for the vicarious realization that other people see the madness that’s going on around us — even if just pointing it out isn’t enough anymore.
The sheer surprise, the punch of Borat‘s gone, and the moments where the sequel tries to chase that madcap, uncomfortable glory feel limper than they should. Not to say that the plot-heavier moments are better; when it’s just Cohen and Bakalova on screen, the disarming sweetness of their chemistry pulls us through (and when Tutar is left alone with a “babysitter” who riffs hilariously off her repressed understanding of women’s rights and anatomy). But the resolution to Borat 2‘s ‘plot’ is tedious and perfunctory at best, even as it flirts with the heartwarming.
But those moments where Cohen and co. are truly able to speak troll to power still carry a visceral thrill, like when he carries a dolled-up Tutar across the floor at this year’s CPAC while dressed in a Trump suit to give to Pence. (Pence, meanwhile, offers snide assurances that they’ve got COVID under control; oh, how little we knew.) Even Rudy Giuliani gets in on the action, Bakalova and Cohen toying with him in the most uncomfortable, potentially-incriminating-depending-on-how-you-screencap-it scenario you could imagine. Suffice to say, they more or less catch Rudy with his pants down.
By dint of its very existence in our modern hellscape, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm just can’t recapture the spontaneous magic of the original. But it’s still worth a watch, if only for the vicarious realization that other people see the madness that’s going on around us — even if just pointing it out isn’t enough anymore. Lord hopes that, in two agonizing weeks, we do something about it. (Vote.)
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will make entertainments for America on Amazon Primes October 23rd.