Few years in recorded history have cried out for a Borat movie more than 2020. Between the pandemic, worldwide social justice protests and the most talked about U.S. president in history being up for reelection, 2020 is screaming for the world’s cheekiest troll to come have a go at it. Now, in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, he has – at least to subscribers of Amazon Prime, who may number quite a few more than they did a week ago.
Of course, the problem with ever making a sequel to (yes I’m going to type out the whole title) Borat: Culture Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was always that the original movie was a one-and-done idea. The concept of Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film was that the character he originally created on Da Ali G Show – a hapless, anti-semitic Kazakh reporter – would mingle among real, unsuspecting Americans, revealing their prejudices while making them unwitting accomplices in his eviscerating satire.
When your hairstyle, moustache and signature grey suit make you famous the world over, though, you can no longer lead these people blindly into their much-deserved traps. They see you coming from a mile away. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has a scene playing out this exact scenario, as Borat is chased down the street by autograph seekers, equally aggressive in their fandom as in a veiled hostility they themselves may not be aware of.
But Cohen couldn’t forget about 2020 and its desperate need for a comedic comeuppance. So he dresses as Borat only occasionally, mostly in staged scenes, the balance of the time donning an outrageous series of wigs, beards and fat suits to remain unrecognisable. (Then again, Cohen has been at this type of trolling for so long, you’d think he’d get recognised even through the most obscuring of costumes.) Where the first movie was probably 30%-70% between staged scenes and scenes of genuine guerrilla-style, reality-based filmmaking, that balance shifts in the other direction here, relying on a number of actors who only appear to be unsuspecting dupes. It may sacrifice some of the film’s anarchic purity, but the final product is still a glorious thumb in the eye of good taste and conservative politics.
Toward that end, the first leaked title of this movie was Borat: Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premiere Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan. The subtitle, to the extent that it is used at all, was subsequently changed to Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime to Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. (The title also changes several times during the movie itself, as the gift/bribe in question keeps changing.)
Either way, it is clearly an attempt to worm its way under the skin of Donald Trump and his inner circle, which the movie does relentlessly. At a time of great importance for progressive minds like Cohen, he can’t afford to be even-handed in who he’s skewering. Which is why several people whom the movie presents as unsuspecting targets – an African-American woman and two elderly Jewish women, in particular – are clearly active conspirators in Cohen’s agenda.
The plot itself also shows this shift toward the politics of inclusion and representation. Not unlike Bill & Ted Face the Music from earlier this spring, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has a significant role for the character’s female offspring. Maria Bakalova plays Tutar, Borat’s daughter back in Kazakhstan, who is so ill-treated, both by Borat and the Kazakh patriarchy, that Borat begins the movie saying he didn’t realise he had a “female son.” When he’s sent by the government back to the U.S. to curry favour with the current administration and restore the country’s reputation – which was besmirched during his original American escapade – Tutar stows away in the wooden crate that accompanies him on his 22-day sea journey to the states.
Bakalova is a great asset to this movie for a number of reasons. She’s a gifted comic actress who seems equally at home in the staged scenes with Cohen and in the pranks with real people that require quick thinking and improvisation. However, she’s also helping deliver a key message about how we view women in society. Borat, in all of his ignorance, stands in for a backward society that only sees women in terms of their physical attributes, if it sees them at all. One plot point involves her considering plastic surgery to make herself more appealing as a sort of mail-order bride to senior members of the Trump administration. The movie takes pains to ultimately deliver the message that she’s beautiful just as she is. It’s a concession to traditional liberal politics that manages to avoid seeming like Cohen is selling out his trademark rudeness.
And because Bakalova is conventionally beautiful, once she’s made over from the feral teenager kept in a cage in Kazakhstan, she’s the perfect bait to ensnare this film’s biggest fish. If Cohen wanted to play a role in the 2020 U.S. election, he almost certainly has in the form of a now infamous scene it would be best not to spoil, had it not made headlines a week before the movie’s release. As most people now know, the made-over Tutar interviews and then seduces Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and current personal attorney to Donald Trump, who is literally caught with his hand down his pants.
That Cohen can still make these waves nearly 20 years into his career as a pariah is a real sign of his ongoing relevance. Another bit from this movie broke several months ago, when Borat (in one of his disguises) takes the stage at an outdoor festival and leads a crowd of gathered Republicans in a sing-along, exhorting us to take journalists and “chop ‘em up like the Saudis do.” It’s hard to imagine how Cohen gets away with this stuff and how there aren’t a trail of lawsuits following him wherever he goes, but the occasional digitally blurred face reminds us that there are those who refuse to allow their likeness to be used as the butt of humiliating satire. That there are far more unblurred faces is a commentary either on most people’s desire for fame, or their general obliviousness.
There are so many things going on here that you could write a whole review of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm without even remembering to talk about whether it’s funny. One person – say, me – can say they laughed a tonne during this movie, while another might find its cringe humour unbearable. Others still might look at jokes about menstruation, abortion, incest, paedophilia and of course penises, and consider them just too gross and sophomoric.
The interesting trick is that the movie is both gross and sweet at the same time, as it pushes all its boundaries in the name of greater human kindness, at the expense of those who would stand in the way of such kindness. It’s impoliteness in the quest for politeness, which makes it both consummately Cohen and an urgent cry in this disastrous year.