Sacha Baron Cohen. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Review: ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ outdoes the original
Disclaimer: I had surgery right before the brief window in which critics could screen this movie, so I both watched it and wrote this review on heavy painkillers. My brain might not be functioning at full capacity, but that somehow seems right for reviewing a movie called Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
True to his nature, our favorite, fakest Kazakhstani reporter is back, right when the world needs him least. When the news first dropped that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (hereafter referred to as Borat Subsequent Movefilm) would be coming out in the midst of 2020, I was skeptical that the character could do any good. The original Borat was a distinctly 2000s comedy, existing in the tension of encouraging social change but not so much of it that prejudice isn’t funny. The cornerstones of its style—equal opportunity offense and pranking unwitting participants—have been refined in the years since by cringe wunderkinds like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Nathan for You, however, giving Borat Subsequent Moviefilm some younger siblings to learn from. I’m happy to say that Sacha Baren Cohen has done just that.
Make no mistake: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm isn’t “enlightened Borat” so much as it’s “Borat plus the insight that comes with time”. The character is as transgressive as ever, but with a few important tweaks to the formula—I’d call it Borat for a post-South Park world if South Park weren’t still around, refusing to evolve. The core of “this character can say and do anything if it’s established that they’re dumb and bad” remains intact, but from Nathan for You it learns the lesson that making its unwitting participants look dumb and bad can be a more fruitful venture. There was some of that in the original Borat, of course, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (hereafter referred to as Borat Subsequent) tips the scales much further in that direction. The influence of director Jason Woliner, who helmed two of Nathan for You’s biggest episodes (“The Claw” and “The Hero”, for fans of the show), is more than evident.
This being 2020, the ones making fools of themselves on camera are the usual suspects: Trump fanatics, QAnon conspiracy theorists, anti-maskers, and more of that same group of people. The material is ripe for mockery, and the Borat team makes the absolute most of it. One prank finds Cohen living with two Trumpian conspiracy theorists for five days straight, in character. At its funniest, Borat Subsequent is sidesplitting. And it’s less of a guilty pleasure now that Borat is spending less time ridiculing the undeserving to their faces. Where the original had Borat, say, spouting misogyny at a feminist group (it’s funny because… they don’t know he doesn’t mean it?), Borat Subsequent lets Americans handle the outwardly hateful rhetoric. When Borat himself is gibbering on about Jews or women, it’s usually just to the audience, or to his in-on-the-joke daughter.
Oh yeah, he has a daughter in this one! Played by Maria Bakalova, who commits just as hard to a ludicrous caricature as Cohen does, she embodies the lesson that Borat Subsequent learned from It’s Always Sunny: even dumb and bad characters can be surprisingly endearing. For a movie that starts off with a joke praising the Holocaust, Borat Subsequent goes to some genuinely sweet places, thanks to a more structured plot that gives its parodic protagonists room to grow. The sequel doesn’t hand Borat a celebrity to kidnap and call it a day—it builds to turning points and emotional climaxes that are, in a feat of writing on the move, fluidly interwoven into pranks. It’s more than you’d expect. But it is mostly silliness, obviously, so the shoe still fits the Borat name, though a little sincerity over his gnarled toes does go a long way. The obviousness doesn’t always work, especially when the “anti-Trump satire” scrapes the bottom of “orange mad bad” banalities—can you imagine how actual WW2 revolutionaries felt about people who were content just making fun of Hitler’s moustache?
Borat Subsequent (hereafter referred to as Borats) does do more than that, here and there. The centerpiece scene gets someone very high-up in the Trump administration to do something very incriminating on-camera, which will surely be the news of the day before nothing’s done about it. But Borats isn’t pretending to be anything more than the jester riffing on Hitler’s moustache. There’s no smug sense of importance here—just fun, hilarity that outdoes the original, and a benign, “revolutionary” stupidity that we didn’t know we needed.