Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
In which direction does Sacha Baron Cohen punch? That’s a valid question when approaching the brand of guerrilla comedy he employs when taking to the streets in character—as hip-hop poseur Ali G, as flamboyant fashionista Brüno Gehard, or as his most famous creation, Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev. Like the vintage Candid Camera
, it’s a style built primarily around putting unwitting people in uncomfortable situations, just to see how they will react. In Cohen's case, it’s also a style that targets both anonymous people on the street and government officials. How much is he exposing hypocrisy and prejudice, and how much is he exposing his willingness to use anyone who feels awkward as the butt of a joke?
It’s been more than a decade since we had to consider that question with the 2009 release of Brüno
, and 14 years since the original cinematic incarnation of Borat
became a sensation. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
arrives in a time when it feels like satire is dead, and Cohen could only possibly be playing to those who already find his preferred targets risible. There’s some funny stuff here, but also a sense that Cohen should be focusing on finding bigger fish to fry.
The kinda-self-aware premise finds Cohen’s Borat a pariah in his own country for having shamed Kazakhstan in the original film. But he gets a chance at redemption when the government sends him back to America in an attempt to curry favor with Donald Trump—ostensibly by delivering a bribe in the form of a monkey/porn star to Mike Pence.
As it turns out, Borat’s teenage daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) stows away with the monkey, hoping to connect with the dad who barely sees females as human. Much of the plot in Subsequent Moviefilm
, to the extent that there is one, involves an estranged parent-child bonding narrative, though any breakthroughs will have to wait for Borat’s efforts to turn Tutar herself into the bribe for Trump. The scripted bits are solid enough, mostly providing a convenient framework to emphasize the misogyny that is just one component of Borat’s horrifying personality.
The selling points of these movies, of course, are Borat’s encounters with various unwitting Americans—who can now only be unwitting if Borat himself puts on a disguise, as early scenes remind us that Borat is famous enough in America to be recognized on the street in his trademark grey suit, and to have a copycat Halloween costume that looks like him. Many of those encounters hit their mark perfectly as intended, like an extended bit in a pro-life Crisis Pregnancy Center where Tutar’s accidental ingestion of a plastic baby figurine from the top of a cupcake is “inadvertently” misrepresented to the earnest counselor. It may be fish-in-a-barrel material to spotlight a pair of Democrat-hating, QAnon-believing guys in rural Washington state, but it’s still hilarious to see them sincerely dismissing Borat’s Kazakhh handbook on how to treat women as “a conspiracy theory.”
At the same time, Subsequent Moviefilm
also spends a lot of time watching as uptight conservative people are embarrassed by something Borat and/or Tutar are doing, in a way that offers no particular insight. Is it a sick burn that a Republican Women’s Club meeting is left puzzled by Tutar’s testimonial about having masturbated for the first time? Or for a debutante ball to be interrupted by Borat and Tutar’s rather graphic father/daughter fertility dance? It’s one thing to set up Rudy Giuliani for mockery as he defends Trump’s coronavirus response and perpetuates the “China created it on purpose in a lab” notion, because seriously, fuck that guy forever. But Cohen often feels like he’s firing a shotgun indiscriminately, ready to take down whoever happens to be in front of him.
Occasionally, that approach can yield strangely affecting results, like a sequence where Borat walks into a synagogue in an offensively exaggerated “Jew” disguise, only to find the women there being patiently kind as they work on dismantling his anti-Semitism. And Cohen’s performance as Borat remains ferociously committed, an absolute clinic in not caring about being “likeable” while staying in character. It just doesn’t feel like he’s pulling back the covers on things we didn’t already know were under them. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
punches up, punches down, punches every which way it can in the quest for a laugh, but the blunt force can’t have the same effect as if Cohen were more particular about who deserved to take the hit.
Available Oct. 23 via Amazon Prime