Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, 2020.
Directed by Jacob Woliner.
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova.
Follow-up film to the 2006 comedy centering on the real-life adventures of a fictional Kazakh television journalist named Borat.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s filmed-in-secret Borat sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, is faced with over-the-odds challenges compared to your average belated comedy. Cohen has had to contend with not only how the comedy landscape has shifted away from shock humour in the 14 years since the original’s release, but also how reality has become such a flagrant farce that satire can scarcely seem to compete.
But this follow-up largely feels like a curative for the current moment, a witty and characteristically daring slice of cinematic catharsis for a world bearing the scars of a year that surely nobody will ever forget.
Since the release of the first film, Kazakh reporter Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) has been imprisoned in a gulag for dragging his country’s rep through the mud. But Borat is granted his release on one condition; he travel to America once more to gift Jonny the Monkey – literally a beloved Kazakh monkey named Jonny – to VP Mike Pence in person. That plan quickly goes kaput, though, and so Borat resigns to offering up his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), instead.
This sequel is effectively an exercise in Cohen and director Jason Woliner finding ways to either sidestep the movie’s inherent creative hurdles, or ingeniously incorporate them. For example, Borat acknowledges early on that the average American may well recognise him in 2020, and so he spends lengthy portions of the film donning a series of ridiculous disguises, while also using Tutar as a ringer of-sorts to keep his interview subjects off an even keel.
The first Borat pointedly mocked with how little Americans know about far-flung nations as well as the country’s generally solipsistic nature, and to that end it didn’t much feel like it belonged to any particular time. But in a canny move which will unavoidably age it faster than its predecessor, Subsequent Moviefilm could not exist in any other year, broaching the subjects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending American presidential election with sledgehammer force.
But in terms of style and execution, the sequel feels very much akin to the first film, striving for the same delirious line-blurring between “real” prank show and staged comedy skit. Even in our more media-savvy present, a lot of the setups and exchanges feel stingingly real – or real enough, at least.
There are certainly scenarios that stretch credibility to snapping point – a mid-film hangout between Tutar and a “babysitter” Borat hires for her, for example – and others that invite audiences to question the artifice, such as Borat hanging out with redneck survivalists in a bunker with no COVID precautions. But if these situations are sufficiently funny, and they mostly are, does plausibility really matter all that much?
Though the slightly overbaked 96-minute runtime does begin to sag in its less-motivated middle-portion, the grandstanding set-pieces mostly land with the desired impact. Borat’s show-stopping trip to the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference, where he dresses as Donald Trump and shouts at Mike Pence as he takes the podium, is a pure riot. The funniest thing about it, however, is simply letting Pence open his mouth and downplay the impending coronavirus catastrophe.
In another outrageous sequence, Borat attends a conservative rally disguised as an American country singer, leading the crowd in sing-song with choice lyrics such as, “Inject [journalists] with the Chinese flu, or chop them up like the Saudis do.” The rapturous cheers as he sings a plea to “gas ’em up like the Germans” is only as amusing as it is a stomach-churningly horrifying indictment of America’s dark core – a sickness which their President has so enthusiastically enabled.
Cohen knows exactly what he’s doing, of course, offering up a bewildering polemic which drops less than two weeks before the presidential election, and though many tens of millions already have their votes in the mail, it is nevertheless a disarmingly irreverent work of political activism.
Outside of this wider satire it is a film keen to stick to the structure that worked the first time, and so sometimes retreads old ground. Borat once again takes an etiquette class, this time before attending a debutante ball with his daughter, which feels like a transparent repeat of Borat’s disastrous dinner party from the first film, cross-cutting between the “training” and the outrageous payoff as it does.
But the second-hand embarrassment generally remains cutting throughout; Borat and Tutar relentlessly troll Christian pastors attempting to dissuade young women from having abortions, plastic surgeons, and in one segment risky enough that Cohen apparently later broke character to explain the ruse, two elderly Jewish women in a synagogue.
The center-piece of the entire movie is meanwhile something the film’s review embargo politely asked that critics don’t explain in detail, but to call it potentially career-ending for the public figure involved is an understatement. Careers have most certainly been irreparably firebombed over a lot less, and it makes for almost unbearably wince-inducing viewing you may only be able to stomach through splayed fingers.
But this isn’t even the big finale. The film’s jaw-dropping ending places an altogether more surreal capper on proceedings, delivering an hilarious twist which, while somewhat departing from our own reality, circles back to remind audiences that they need to get out and vote if they haven’t already.
If Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doesn’t hit with quite the same comedic drive or freshness as its forebear, it moves fast and offers up a consistent slew of gut-laughs. Cohen is in full force as always, while Maria Bakalova very nearly wrestles the movie away from him with her brilliantly complimentary turn as Tutar.
Not everything works, but this is such a game swing for the fences that it’s tough to begrudge those misses, especially in a film cobbled together in the midst of a global pandemic.
If it took 14 years for Sacha Baron Cohen’s most beloved creation to return to our screens, it’s tough to imagine a more comically opportune – or politically devastating – time for the reprise. It may not be the best film of 2020, but it is unequivocally the film of 2020.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.