By Adam Schendel
Fans of Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional, anarchic Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev got an unexpected surprise last month when the comedian announced he had completed a new sequel movie featuring the character, which was released on Friday on Amazon Prime Video. Though audiences had cause to wonder just how well Borat’s satirical comedy would adapt and land in 2020, the film itself is one of the most daring and revealing of the year.
Upon revisiting 2006’s Borat, the film remains as hilarious as ever, a masterclass by Cohen in bizarro satirical performance art. It featured Borat as the embodiment of a perceived backward cultural ignorance in other countries as he traveled across the United States at the height of the Bush era. Cohen took part in unscripted pranks with real people who were not in on the joke and ended up revealing their own prejudices in the process. But the Americans’ candid bigotry, sexism, and hypernationalism that the filmmakers caught on camera are less biting upon viewing today because of how they have become such explicit mainstream political currents in the past four years of a Donald Trump presidency.
The new Borat Subsequent Moviefilm recognizes the shortcomings of the public antics of Borat now that we live in an American reality that often feels stranger than fiction. The plot therefore begins by putting much of its focus on the scripted humor of Borat being sent again to the U.S. by the government of Kazakhstan to present his daughter, Tutar, as a gift to Vice President Mike Pence (“known to be such a pussy hound that be cannot be left alone in a room with a womans”) to garner favor for his home nation.
Much of this fodder can be hit-or-miss, relying on gross-out shock humor early on. But highlights include a sequence where Borat and Tutar perform a profoundly uncomfortable dance at a Southern debutante ball and another where Cohen dresses in a full Donald Trump bodysuit to crash Vice President Pence’s speech during the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, which serves as an ominous foreshadowing of the pandemic disaster soon to come, with Pence telling the audience, “While the risk [of coronavirus] to the American public remains low…we’re ready. We’re ready for anything.”
It’s when the actual coronavirus pandemic descends upon the country in the last third of the movie that Cohen once more captures the magic of reflecting the absurdity of our times through Borat. The character ends up in lockdown in the home of two conservative men, where he encounters COVID denialism, QAnon conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton drinking the blood of children, the violent ideation of a Three Percenter militia rally, and other general right-wing lunacy.
All of this culminates in an interview conducted with President Trump’s current personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as Cohen and Bakalova are under disguise. Of course, this has generated major headlines because of a scene in which Giuliani is caught on hidden camera in a hotel room laying on a bed and reaching down into his trousers in the presence of Bakalova before Cohen bursts in the room to interrupt. Giuliani has denied any inappropriate conduct while Cohen responded on Good Morning America by commenting “he did what he did…it was pretty clear to us.”
All of this is where the satire of Borat becomes just as piercing as it has ever been. It becomes harder and harder to discern where Cohen’s insane performance art ends and the reality of American psychosis begins as we live through a pandemic that has killed 230,000 people and counting with hardly an end in sight.
One weakness of the film is that Cohen exclusively skewers Trump supporters and the far-right without offering any wider analysis of what factors brought the U.S. to such a depraved state, and he offers little in the way of solutions other than a rallying message to vote “or you will be execute” (the primary means of enforcement in the story’s caricatured picture of Kazakhstan).
But overall, the film offers a surprisingly personal dynamic with feminist overtones between the misogynistic Borat and his daughter, with newcomer Maria Bakalova proving to be a true revelation for her improvisational comedic talent and commitment to craft in the presence of even figures like Giuliani.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is impressive for how centrally it weaves the pandemic into its plot on such short notice and uses this unprecedented moment to allow Borat of all characters to diagnose just how much the U.S. is now defined by its most toxic elements in the eyes of the world. It is a grim assessment but at least one that Cohen leavens with humor.
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