Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 22nd, 2020
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Woliner, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Comedian provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen first created Borat, one of his numerous aliases, as a supporting player on Da Ali G Show, which ran from 2000 to 2004. Then, in 2006, he gave him his own starring role, in the feature film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Though ostensibly a journalist from Kazakhstan, the man bears no particular resemblance – physically, culturally or linguistically – to residents of that Central Asian country, though that detail is of little import (unless, I imagine, one is from Kazakhstan), as he is merely meant to be a construct of all things formerly Soviet. In fact, he far more adheres to Balkan and Russian stereotypes, complete with the historical anti-Semitism of those regions. However one feels about his mishmash of origins, it’s how Baron Cohen uses the character, as he did Ali G (and Brüno, another persona), that is of especial interest.
Behaving as outrageously as he can – which includes assumed racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny, among other things – he hopes to draw out the worst in those he encounters, filming it for later exploitation and exposure. Those who laugh at his stunts do so, one guesses, from a place of moral superiority and indignation: look at those rubes, aren’t they hilarious? Well, yes, sometimes they are. And when they hold outrageous and dangerous views about the world, then they fully deserve our reprobation. Still, it’s hard to discern, in the final cinematic version of these recorded exploits, what is pure nasty behavior and what is manipulated or even staged. If one knows anything about filmmaking, then a healthy skepticism about the power of the edit should accompany any viewing of Borat on screen. What’s missing is the simple beauty of Da Ali G Show, in which the titular character interviewed famous people and dragged them down a rabbit hole of ridiculousness, with minimal distortion. Most were hoisted by their own petard, and it was a wonder to behold
Now here we are with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which picks up the narrative of our antihero as he emerges from a 14-year jail sentence, having been imprisoned for embarrassing Kazakhstan in front of the whole world, last time (one wonders if real-life Kazakhs might not wish to do the same). The mockumentary begins with his liberation, as he is given a new mission to gift the new American vice president, one Michael Pence, with a token of esteem, to be delivered by Borat as an expiation of his sins. Before he can depart, however, he discovers that he has a 15-year-old daughter, who despite his best efforts (for what good is a daughter, after all?), tags along to the United States. She, “Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev” (aka Tutar, her apparent birth name), is played by the brilliantly game Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, who proves Baron Cohen’s equal (at the very least) in physical comedy and sheer bravery as the two proceed to wreak havoc across conservative America.
And so they do, and for a good portion of the film’s 95 minutes, the jokes land hard, even when there are times we feel that the supposed targets must have been at least a little in on the joke. After all, there is a constant camera crew following Borat and Sandra around. The majority of us will never know, so it’s a good thing that the setups and payoffs generally deliver. Whether the sketch takes place at a debutante ball, CPAC conference with Pence as speaker (which took some guts), a GOP women’s gathering or, my favorite, a faith-based family-planning clinic, there is a lot of really wonderful material. Baron Cohen and Bakalova make a terrific team.
In the days leading up to the movie’s release, much has been made of how former New York City mayor – and current personal attorney to Donald Trump – Rudy Giuliani was not only punked by Borat and his “daughter,” but was caught making repulsive sexual advances to the young woman. It’s unfortunate if this last part becomes the narrative, since (see above about manipulated media), it’s unclear to this critic what actually occurred in that hotel bedroom (though Giuliani does stick his hand far down his pants). The story should be, instead, about how creepy and gross he was to Bakalova prior to going into that bedroom, as well as why he went into the bedroom in the first place. That’s enough to condemn him, in my book. Focusing on what happened next merely allows Giuliani to deflect and deny, when he deserves to do neither.
I enjoyed this far more than the first Borat film. Perhaps it was the presence of Bakalova, or perhaps, given the 2016 election, I just enjoyed the takedowns of American deplorables more than ever. That said, many scenes go on too long (another reason I miss Ali G); a little Borat goes a long way. Nevertheless, underneath the surface of this “subsequent moviefilm” is quite a lot of substance, to be savored and discussed. Let the conversation begin.