By now, it's no particular secret that I'm comfortable with questionable material.
So, it likely comes as no surprise that I found myself laughing with schoolboy glee at the latest Sacha Baron Cohen creation Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan or, as we're going to call it moving forward, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the film America didn't know it needed, though my guess is a good number of Americans still won't realize they needed it even after watching it.
That's kind of Cohen's point, though my sad assumption is that those who need it most will likely miss the point.
Unless you're an idiot (You're not, are you?), you absolutely expected America to do a post-Obama pendulum swing into the land of raging white sheets and cultish bigotry. However, few could have expected we'd enter 2020 seemingly more divided than ever and fighting over mask-wearing, boys who are proud, and whether or not you can take an AK-47 to the polls.
But, here we are.
200,000+ Americans are dead, though not everyone believes it. A simple statement like "Black Lives Matter" has become controversial. Homicide is once again trendy.
Oh, and the nation's leader is a Jim Jones wannabe. Because, well, you know that worked out so well the first time.
Into this world, Borat Sagdiyev walks again.
The Oxford-educated Cohen has long been calling out the bigotry and hatred that has long bubbled underneath the surface of the witch's cauldron known as the U.S., easily pre-dating Obama and likely always existing.
Perhaps it always will.
Cohen has been playing Borat for around 20 years now, starting with Da Ali G Show and winding his way through two feature films 14 years apart with occasional appearances and variations in between. If you've never cared for the Borat shtick, it's unlikely that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will change your mind. If you've always dug the character, you'll most certainly dig this film to a certain degree.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm gives us a more confident Cohen, a Cohen who has learned how to use the Borat character for the universal good even if we don't always realize it's for our own good. It's kind of like when our moms used to wash our mouths out with soap for lying - it didn't necessarily always taste that great, but in the end most of us figured out it was for our own good.
Of course, some of us just kept right on lying. Those people became politicians.
There's no denying the Borat character is a whole lot more familiar now. He's less shocking and, I think it's fair to say, trying even harder to be more shocking. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
In the 2006 mockumentary, the Kazakh journalist, arrived in America and inspired us, or maybe perspired us, to spew rampant anti-semitism that both made us laugh and absolutely horrified anyone with a conscience. While not exactly a film crying out for a sequel, the eventual arrival of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is only surprising in that it took 14 years to get here.
Yet, somehow, the timing is absolutely perfect.
Into this world, Borat doesn't seem quite so absurd. Sacha Baron Cohen has seemingly risen to the occasion, this subsequent film of a movie or movie of a film started pre-pandemic and somehow finished amidst a world gone madder and finding a special pre-election place dancing a fine line between so pissed off its dangerous satire and the kind of silly low-brow comedy that seems meaningless until you start actually thinking about it.
Even the marketing is something close to extraordinary, the former hero turned laughingstock Rudy Giuliani caught in an almost seedy little bit in a hotel room in the kind of situation that would have been career-defining years ago but now serves mostly as a notch on the political bedpost. The truth is that the scene isn't nearly as questionable as it's portrayed, oh and it's certainly edited quite precisely, but it's most definitely a headline grabber as, at the very best, Giuliani becomes known as the only guy in America who tucks his shirt in lying down.
This is an example, at least for me, of what makes Borat Subsequent Moviefilm a film that is superior to its predecessor. There's a narrative here that's cohesive, it works, even though you may find yourself in massive disagreement with it. Director Jason Woliner, who cut his cinematic teeth on Adult Swim's Brett Gelman's Dinner in America, is at the helm of a satirical cinematic beast that is intentional, searing, funny, and far bolder than a good majority of satire in American cinema these days. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm skews pro-lifers, not so much for the beliefs but for how those beliefs often manifest, and, of course, there's more than a little material here about rampant anti-semitism that is most certainly on the rise. Borat calls out sexism here, and it's worth noting that three female writers were added to the film's seven-person writing team, and just when you think Borat can't tackle one more thing it seems like it wakes up sleepy-eyed on Christmas morning to find a global pandemic under the Christmas Tree.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm finds Borat unexpectedly sent back to America to redeem himself and essentially clean up the mess he made the first time. Released from a hard-labor gulag, Borat's job, if you will, is to bribe America's strongmen into letting Kazakhstan into their club. It's rather amazing, and even a little disturbing, just how effective Borat is at accomplishing what should have been an impossible task.
Into this scenario plops the real hidden gem of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, whose performance as Borat's 15-year-old daughter has instantly become one of my favorite things about 2020.
Admittedly, it's a low bar.
Bakalova gives a performance that could best be described as cinematic revolution, a free-for-all spirit that lays waste to all her scenes with a joyously evil gleam in her eyes yet such an utter sincerity that Bakalova's is a work of wonder here. This is practically the definition of a satirical performance, simultaneously sweet and endearing and smart and vicious. You'll fall in love with her charm, much as is captured with Giuliani here, and then you'll find yourself wonder if you fell in love with 24-year-old Bakalova or 15-year-old Tutar.
Again, that's the point.
Through a series of mishaps, misunderstandings and madness, Borat and Tutar journey from the South, with the expected results, all the way to New York City with increasingly wild and pointed results along the way. It's always been arguable, and is again true here, that there's a bit of a mean-spirited nature to some of Borat's gags. After all, is it really ours to disrupt someone else's ignorant bliss?
Borat would clearly answer "Yes!"
Bakalova emphasizes the gag in a debutante ball scene that almost makes me forgive Jenny McCarthy, while listening to her speak to an aghast group of elder Republican women is both offensive and funny and, well, offensively funny. Bakalova's shocking behavior is perhaps made even more shocking by her complete and utter sincerity, Tutar's transformation over the course of the film utterly amazing and by film's end you're realizing what an astounding performance you've actually seen.
While Bakalova is astounding here, Cohen is inspired. Cohen masterfully disarms people, their unexpected comfort at his absurdity leading them down a path of awkward self-revelation and more than a little humiliation. We reveal ourselves, if we're being honest, when we're most comfortable and, in the true American spirit, we're often most comfortable when we feel superior to someone.
These folks clearly feel superior to Borat. At least until it's too late.
When Borat asks a stylist "What color is best for a racist family?," you can't help but be astounded that the question would be asked. And answered. When he manages to infiltrate the CPAC Conference where veep Mike Pence is actually speaking while dressed in an oversized Donald Trump costume AND purportedly carrying his daughter as a gift FOR Pence, you can't help but be befuddled that even 10% of this gag would work.
Yet it does.
By now, we've all read about Borat's appearance at the "March for Our Rights" rally in Washington D.C., a gag that nearly went wildly awry with the hillbilly costumed Borat eliciting grins, guffaws, and a sing-a-long. The gag is brilliantly and bravely realized, and yes edited, weaving together Borat's real-life five-day stay with a couple of QAnon embracing conspiracy theorists who exist somewhere between good ole' boy sincerity and actually being the goofballs they believe Borat to be. You can't help but laugh, but you also can't help but realize these are good people who've responded to a steady diet of misinformation and outright lies.
If there's a reason that I truly appreciate Borat Subsequent Moviefilm more than its predecessor, it's in the film's unexpected sentimentality and heart that rises up in the relationship between Borat and Tutar and in the occasional scene where Borat doesn't let him go so far as to become that which he is satirizing. An encounter with the recently passed Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans could have tipped the scales into tasteless but never does. Instead, the scene is surprisingly sweet. It was later noted that Borat had clued Evans into the joke, though her family reportedly disputes this and has filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers.
Truthfully, it's a wonderful scene.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a wonderful film, a not so subtle plea to vote and to get involved and to not hate and to laugh. Seriously, go ahead and laugh. Pointed in its politics yet optimistic in its heart, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm may very well be one of 2020's most essential films. It's also one of the year's funniest.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic