Borat Subsequent Moviefilm brings outrage back to comedy

Fourteen years after the first film, but mere months in the making, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat returns in this biting satirical sequel.

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In one sense, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is among the tardiest of all sequels. It has been 14 years since Borat Sagdiyev, the blundering, credulous Kazakh reporter created and played by Sacha Baron Cohen, crossed the US in an ice-cream van in pursuit of Pamela Anderson. Tired of the world laughing at Kazakhstan after that film, its president now sends Borat back to the US to present a gift to “Vice Pussy-Grabber” Mike Pence in order to restore the country’s glory. Hence the film’s full title, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Good luck nailing that one in charades.

On the other hand, rarely can a movie of this nature and profile have been made and released so quickly. It must be the first major film not only to include credits for Covid Compliance Officers but also to have been shot across the US during lockdown. Urgency fuels the film, from its scenes of Confederate flag-waving, Sieg Heil-ing revellers with their “Yes to Freedom, No to Fauci!” banners, to the reference to Steve Bannon’s arrest two months ago, and the closing demand to US viewers: “Now vote.”

The picture’s intent is serious – it is dedicated to the late Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans, who appears on screen, and there is a bullseye gag concerning Facebook’s only-recently-revoked tolerance of Holocaust denial. But Cohen’s usual species of mockumentary, last seen in his fitfully brilliant TV series Who is America?, hasn’t perished under Covid. There are the usual Candid Camera-style scenes of Borat goofing around in front of bemused retail staff: accessing porn in an electronics store, or consuming different “flavours” of lipstick at a make-up counter. Low-hanging fruit is one thing but this surely counts as pigéage.

At the other end of the spectrum, logistically speaking, is the high-stakes business of getting Borat in the same room as Pence or Rudy Giuliani to cause the maximum amount of embarrassment before the inevitable ejection by security.

Those stunts run on their own raggedy, adrenalised energy, while the scripted scenes between Borat and his 15-year-old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) have a polished zing, as well they might with eight screenwriters on board. What plot there is repeats the pattern of Borat, Brüno and The Dictator: a sidekick, in this case Tutar, is disparaged at first before growing to be cherished. Father and daughter’s scenes together are played in such a throwaway fashion that it’s possible not to notice that we are watching a loose and rather sweet-natured remake of Paper Moon, only with added jokes about incest and abortion.

[See also: Simran Hans on Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman]

It is Tutar herself who is to be offered as a bribe to Pence, so Borat drags her to a clothes shop and a plastic surgeon to transform her “from a notsy to a hotsy”. The 24-year-old Bakalova is the find of the film, an inexhaustible comic dervish whose chutzpah, composure and flair for mayhem make her the equal of her more experienced co-star. Her celebratory dance in a stationery supplies store after she learns that she will be presented to Pence (“I will be the new Queen Melania!”) is one of the film’s deranged highlights, part Steve Martin’s “Happy Feet” routine, part Tasmanian devil.

The material that falls between those various stools, neither fully scripted nor entirely ingenuous in its documentary methods, produces the patchiest results. Scenes in which Tutar is “babysat” by a kindly middle-aged African-American woman, who expresses concern that Borat keeps a ball and chain locked to his daughter’s ankle, are downright bewildering. The unresolved question of what this woman has been told about the scenario, and what sort of film she thinks she is participating in, are an impediment to any possible comedy.

An incident at a Republican women’s event, during which Tutar takes to the stage to talk about masturbation, also misfires. The point seems to be to expose the hypocrisy of female voters who endorse a misogynistic president but blanch at the prospect of the female orgasm. Except they don’t, not really. These older women are taken aback but they are also patient with Tutar, even sympathetic, and we are left wondering where the joke is and who it might be on.

When I reviewed the first Borat film in this magazine in 2006, I was taken to task by Christopher Hitchens for mistaking the benign smiles of Americans in the face of Borat’s racism for compliance. Couldn’t I see, Hitchens asked in an exasperated piece for Slate, that their behaviour was not consent but politeness? It would be a stretch to argue now, with almost a full term of Trump behind us, that the baker who blithely pipes an anti-Semitic slogan on to the top of a cake in the new film is merely safeguarding her Tripadvisor rating, or that the plastic surgeon who happily joins in with an anti-Semitic tirade is only keeping the customer satisfied. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm faces an uphill struggle in shocking a world inured to outrage, but it does its valiant best to keep horror – and hope – alive.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is on Amazon Prime Video from 23 October

[See also: Ellen Peirson-Hagger reports on the closure of Cineworld]

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning

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