Lightning rarely strikes twice in life, even less frequently in the realm of comedies. And in the case of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” a sequel to his “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” mockumentary film about anti-Semitic Kazakhstani television personality Borat Sagdiyev, forget even thunder, as storm clouds barely form. Cohen captured lightning in a bottle with his hilariously scathing 2004 film, “Borat,” but ‘Subsequent Moviefilm’—seemingly rushed into theaters (ok streaming to Amazon) to influence the election or say something about the failings of America again—just has a few of the same flashes of electrically-charged hilarity. There’s the “introducing the monster in a horror film” problem too: the surprise and scare are out of the bag and the same phenomenon applies to “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (its full official title). The unpredictable OMG what-will-happen-next factor has vanished because the audience understands the formula. What once felt subversive, and even dangerously so, now feels largely conventional.
“Borat 2” begins 14 years after the original feature. “Borat,” the film, was a great success, but it embarrassed Kazakhstan on a global level therefore Sagdiyev has been sent to a prison camp for life. Borat narrates what took place globally in the ensuing years—an evil, incompetent man took over America and nearly ruined it, his name Barack Obama. But a new leader has been installed, MacDonald Trump as Sagdiyev likes to mispronounce, and the leader of Kazakhstan has a plan: send a great gift/bribe to Trump or Mike Pence to return Kazakhstan to good global standing once again, after all, Trump is friendly with great world leaders like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Jair Bolsonaro.
The plan, as you might expect, goes horribly awry, and instead of a package including the proposed gift delivered to America, Borat’s “non-male-son” aka daughter turns up. The maxim of all jumping-the-shark TV comedies is that when the show grows tired, add a new child to the family to spice things up (a la the way Leonardo DiCaprio joined “Growing Pains” in its waning seventh and final season). ‘Subsequent Moviefilm’ embraces that idea to heart from the start, ditching Borat’s documentary buddy, Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian), in favor of introducing the aforementioned daughter, Tutar Sagdiyev (Maria Balakova), a homely wench who lives in a cage. Cohen, who loves to satirize America’s ideas of racism, sexism, homophobia, and more ugly beliefs, then tackles all ideas of misogyny in a movie that becomes something of a twisted father/daughter tale (replete with semi-funny, semi-crass gag sequences about abortion). Kazakhstan’s bribe may be gone, but Sagdiyev has the brilliant idea of selling his daughter off to “pussyhound” Mike Pence and thus the movie really starts in earnest, beginning with ideas of prettifying Tutar with boob jobs and other artificial sweeteners (a warped femineity/misogyny is a running theme as Melania Trump is worshipped by Eastern European girls because she lives in a “gold cage”).
Unfortunately, while Balakova is game, all of it feels too familiar. Pick a scab of a topic—abortion, racism, anti-Semitism, porn—and pick at it to uncomfortably relentless levels. ‘Borat 2’ is so familiar that even Cohen has to go undercover, spending half the movie as Sagdiyev dressing up as fat Americans so easily-duped bystanders don’t recognize him—the bloom is just fallen far from the rose. The authenticity, so crucial to ‘Borat’ is also gone. In 2006, many likely didn’t realize that Azamat Bagatov, for example, was an actor, but here, there’s a question whether even half of these pedestrians are actors or not.
If you’re going to ridicule the Trump administration and the GOP cohorts for running the exact same 2016 playbook in the 2020 election, despite the world radically changing in four years and yes, you should—-maybe you should also mock a comedy—that aims to make fun of that same administration and the America it has wrought— for running the same game plan 14 years after the fact with little in way of a new approach. Because, “Borat 2,” is largely the same design, slightly tweaked for a modern age, but never as politically or socially relevant as you’d expect (where was Sagdiyev during the Black Lives Matter protests?).
In recent years, Sacha Baron Cohen has been a vocal critic of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and the perversion of social media for political gain, and there’s a passion behind all of his speeches or the digs he gets in at awards shows—he clearly recognizes the power it possesses and how evil it can be in the wrong hands. But little of that fury is used directly or indirectly for comedy, in ‘Borat 2,’ not the social media aspect itself—granted, trickier to pull off— nor laughs fueled by anger. Worse, many of the jokes are just cheap, crassly vulgar, gross-out provocations that have not of the biting commentary or sharp wit of the original.
‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ comes alive in the last act in a way that a Borat movie in 2020 should. Borat embeds himself with white idiot Qanon hicks and the movie begins to confront not only the Coronavirus but the unique brand of American stupidity, ignorance, insane conspiracy theories, and hatefulness that follows in its path. This section is vibrantly funny in the same way the original ‘Borat’ was and you wish “the plot” all along would have been Sagdiyev infiltrating and working with Qanon to spread the lies, mistrusts, deceptions, and distractions that have marked the Trump administration. And that’s when you realize, as little as Trump and the White House factors into ‘Subsequent Moviefilm,’ it’s enough that Cohen and Co. have largely taken their eye off the critique of America itself—the fundamental Borat principal—and confused it with Trump.
That said, part of the third act is a shockingly, outrageous sequence that dupes the maggot-rotting-brain of Rudy Giuliani in an interview. Anything further will spoil the full surprise, but suffice to say, it’s arguable that Cohen prevented a scene of inappropriate sexual behavior with the former mayor of New York City, turned galaxy-brain conspiracy theorist for Trump.
‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ wraps itself up nicely in an odd bow too, Sagdiyev actually trying to learn father/daughter lessons and become a good man, however misguided. It’s a strange approach for Cohen, director Jason Woliner, and the eight writers credited to the film (four writers are credited to the story too), but as a “release it during an election year” film and response to the world’s current political crisis, clearly cobbled together at the last minute, it’s perhaps a fitting goodbye to a flawed character who has resurfaced suddenly to say, in the fleeting final minutes of the film, maybe we can change. Cohen’s main aim with “Borat 2,” other than encouraging people to vote, which feels like a big eye-roll (though yes, you should), might be to expose all the looneys in America—Giuliani being a prime example of the brain-damaged deranged— but ultimately, maybe all it really reveals is just how difficult it is to rebottle the magic of spontaneous comedic phenomenon. [C]
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” arrives on Amazon Prime Video on October 23.