When Sacha Baron Cohen first took the character of Borat Sagdiyev—a charmingly moronic and politically incorrect Kazakh journalist—to the big screen in 2006, we lived in a world where the myth of American exceptionalism was still largely intact. It had picked up a few dents and blemishes from George W. Bush’s presidency, and the two wars he started in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the true destabilising cost of those military misadventures—both at home and in the Middle East—was yet to be revealed. The darkly racist, sexist and bigoted underbelly of American society was still concealed under a veneer of politeness and civility.
So when Borat made his way across America, his buffoonish bigotry setting up tripwires for unsuspecting Americans to expose their own latent prejudices, the laughs were accompanied by a sense of horrific revelation. The naked brawls, poop humour, and politically incorrect punchlines were all brilliant, but what really made Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan such a phenomenal film was its ability to use American politeness against itself, to goad ordinary, unsuspecting people into exposing their darkest beliefs.
Fourteen years later, Borat Sagdiyev emerges from the gulag—where he’s spent the interim years atoning for the embarrassment the first film brought to Kazakhstan—to a world (and an America) that has fundamentally changed. “McDonald” Trump, the new American “premier”, has a hard-on for strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un, offering the Kazakh head of state an opportunity to put the country back on the world map. So Borat is released from his imprisonment, and tasked with presenting “vice pussy-grabber” Mike Pence with a gift—Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture and pornstar Johnny The Monkey (yes, an actual monkey).
Predictably, things start to go off the rails as soon as Borat lands in the US. First, Borat keeps getting recognised on the streets, forcing him to adopt a series of ludicrous disguises. Then Johnny ends up being dinner for Borat’s feral 15-year-old daughter Tutar (played by the fantastic Maria Bakalova), who stowed away in the Minister’s crate. Facing certain torture and death when he returns home, Borat decides to gift Tutar to Pence instead, and sets off on another road trip as he tries to make her presentable for such a “ladies man”. There are gags aplenty as father and daughter make their way across the country, nudging a nice old baker lady into committing an anti-semitic hate crime here, getting a makeup stylist to choose a hair colour most acceptable to “racist” families there, even pushing a cosmetic surgeon to admit that he’d “make a sex attack” on a 15 year old girl, if only her father were not present.
But unlike the original film, these revelations aren’t shocking anymore. When Borat gets a shopkeeper to discuss how much gas it would take to kill a van full of gypsies, or when Tutar gets Instagram influencer Macey Chanel to talk about how women can’t be strong if they want “sugar daddies”, they are only confirming what we already know about Trump’s America. Even most of the more elaborate ruses—like when Borat spends five days in lockdown with a pair of QAnon conspiracy theorists, and then performs a song they co-wrote about beheading journalists and gassing people like the Germans at a pro-Trump, anti-quarantine protest—are tamer than the actual reality we see everyday in news headlines and on social media. In a world where literal Nazis openly march in the streets of the world’s most powerful democracy, what is even left for Borat to expose?
Thankfully, some of the slack is picked up by the film’s run-through plotline, as Borat and Tutar find ways to connect with each other, despite the shared baggage of a deeply misogynistic (and fictionalised) Kazakh culture in which women are treated like livestock. Borat even carries around a handbook on women from the Ministry of Agriculture and Wildlife. Some of the film’s best moments come as Tutar (once again, played brilliantly by Bakalova) sheds that baggage and grapples with American womanhood, enthusiastically engaging with both the good (equal rights, sexual and personal agency) and the bad (pro-lifers, Trump). There’s also a touch of much-needed hope and positivity that was absent in the original, especially in the scene where the deeply anti-Semitic Borat interacts with a Holocaust survivor in a New York synagogue, a masterful juxtaposition of tenderness and deep discomfort. You’ll be glad to know that Sacha Baron Cohen broke his own rules for this one, and the survivor was informed of the nature of the shoot before it happened. There are some lines that even Borat won’t cross, though you can’t say the same about a significant chunk of Americans.
The political punches get heftier as the film approaches its final third, and the COVID-19 pandemic hits. Without spoiling too much, Borat’s infiltration of CPAC—a Republican political conference—dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member, and his ensuing hijinks there in a different costume, bring back the same thrilling sense of danger as the first film, where you often wondered how Cohen made it out of a situation alive and in one piece. And the finale’s entrapment of Trump attorney and former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani is a masterful piece of sting-operation-meets-Jackass-prank subterfuge that has already grabbed the headlines in this election season.
Borat Subsequent MovieFilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is at least partly a film made to provoke American voters into kicking this administration to the curb in the coming election. They’re not very subtle about it, the film ends with an exhortation to vote or you’ll “be execute”. But the mechanism by which it tries to do this—exposing bigotry and misogyny and publicly shaming their proponents—doesn’t really work as well in 2020 as it did in 2006. It’s still an enjoyable film, brilliantly hilarious in some parts, surprisingly tender and vulnerable in others. But it stumbles on the same obstacle that has brought low most political comedies of the last few years—reality is just too weird, outrageous and straight up insane for even the most brilliant satirists to keep up with.
It’s the great question of contemporary political comedy, isn’t it? How do you satirise those who own their moral repugnance as a badge of honour? Sadly, Borat Subsequent MovieFilm provides no answers.
Borat Subsequent MovieFilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.