Written by: Joe Lollo
A few years ago, the idea of a Borat sequel releasing days before a major election seemed unthinkable. The first film set itself up for a sequel with that ending, but it’s been years. 2020, however, has hardly been the realm of the expected, and of course, we had Sacha Baron Cohen come back as the titular Kazakh “reporter.”
The original 2006 Borat film felt like one of the last great comedy films to really spread across the world in terms of just how fun it was. Cohen’s Borat Sagdiyev, became a globally recognizable and instantly quotable character, a status that seems to only be achieved by Marvel characters nowadays. The film’s sequel, directed by the Human Giant Troupe’s Jason Woliner, now streaming on Amazon Prime, likely won’t have the same staying power, but it’s still a very familiar and fun watch for fans of the first film. It’s dark and outrageous, just like the original, but it’s also surprisingly more touching and optimistic alongside being funny, which is something we definitely need in these hard times.
For the longest time, I’ve been waiting for something uproariously funny to come out of 2020, and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to the American Regime for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has finally been that film. Borat, since the original film, has gained international fame but perceived to have brought shame to Kazakhstan, leading to his imprisonment. Once he breaks out, however, he hears that Mike Pence wants a “bride,” (in reality, he misheard “bribe”), and with his teenage daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) in tow, he makes his way back to a more turbulent U.S. than the one he visited in 2006. In this new journey, he not only makes fun of at least one major Republican politician – a “great success!” if you ask me – but he exposes some of the most toxic parts of American culture today after having a run-in with a white nationalist, leading this film to potentially have a bigger impact than its prequel.
On the surface, this film seems to be exactly what the first Borat, or if you want to know the “real title,” Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, wanted to present as a sequel. While he’s not in love with Pamela Anderson anymore, the film still uses the iconic journey of the American road trip as a pretext for ludicrous real-world interviews and improvised scenarios, where Cohen’s ableist, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic Kazakh character pushes people’s buttons.
This time, however, the results are different – the film takes a new approach to address problems in a new America. It’s much more honest than the original. Cohen had no intention to target anyone in his pranks during the first film other than the very broad “America.” The original Borat, from the Bush years, perfectly mirrored the Bush years – he was silly and didn’t want to target anyone in particular. This new Borat enters an America in which some of the people he harassed and followed no longer feel like political outliers, and as a result, his material is far more volatile.
This time, Borat’s journey isn’t about seeking out a celebrity to have sex with. It’s about gifting his daughter to Mike Pence on behalf of the Kazakh government to make amends for his “shaming” of Kazakhstan. He arrives in the America we’re in now, an America in which Borat’s antics need to be kicked up a notch to keep up with the changing political tides and the loosened limits of what is “acceptable.” He ups the ante from inadvertent rudeness to outright child trafficking, just to see who’ll go along with it. The film may not show viewers anything they don’t already know about America’s political landscape – it’s hard to reveal the hidden layers
when racial vitriol is so out in the open – but the antics of Cohen and Bakalova, who have fantastic chemistry together, are a joy regardless.
The Borat of 2020 is also a symbol of hyper-visibility. It’s almost metafictional – he’s instantly recognizable from his trademark mustache, curly hair, and “black-not” suit (no, he does not have the swimsuit in this film – only in the poster), and as a result, Borat has to further disguise himself as a multitude of American caricatures. Cohen is fantastic at this in every role he does, and his immersion is even better when he takes aim at American conservatism in this film. This includes its more conspiratorial or violent strains, such as Rudy Giuliani, QAnon, and the white supremacist group Proud Boys, which may make it slightly upsetting to watch, but is no less excellently executed.
In the first film, Borat introduced himself with the line “I like you. I like sex.” That’s pretty much all you need to know about his character; he’s sincere, but he’s a bit of a pervert, which paints his journey to California with the right kind of cognitive dissonance for a raunchy comedy. Borat’s love for Pamela Anderson was, in his mind, real and true, but it was counterbalanced by cartoonishly ugly misogyny.
His audience doesn’t necessarily want him to succeed at kidnapping a celebrity, but watching the film also means being morbidly curious about the outcome. The original is surprisingly enticing as a character piece, even more than as the mockumentary it was intended as, but it was also a solo journey, with heartfelt moments delivered mostly to the camera. This new film, however, is about a father-daughter relationship – and that works much better in its heartfelt moments. Maria Bakalova – or if you’re Borat in the credits, “Мария Бакалова” – is as much a co-star as a co-conspirator of Cohen’s, and with the praise she is getting, I can see her getting more roles in big films.
This review really could’ve been a typewriter creed à la The Shining with the words “FEMINIST BORAT! FEMINIST BORAT! WE STAN” repeated a few hundred times. The idea is just so brain-breakingly silly on paper. It sounds like a bad joke until the film’s genuinely human moments unfold on screen. And the way this particular subplot resolves overlaps with what might be an insurmountable high point in Cohen’s mock-interview oeuvre. But perhaps the biggest heist of all is that Cohen and his cohorts have made Borat’s return to “U, S, and A” feel effortless and exciting, long after he overstayed his cultural welcome.
The character repeats all his memorable lines in the sequel’s opening scene just to get them out of the way because it seems even Cohen is aware there’s no way he can top them. Instead, he makes the sequel’s gimmicks even more outrageous. But while they reveal a deeper moral decay in America than before, they also reveal an even deeper humanity. The father-daughter dynamic is surprisingly tender for a film this farcical.
It sounds ridiculous to say, but the Borat sequel is about as optimistic as a film about the current political moment can be right now. Even though its lead characters are fraudulent pranksters, and their creator has a penchant for preying on politeness, the kindness people show Borat and Tutar is the furthest thing from manufactured. It’s a welcome respite from all the ugliness on display — and from the moments where the film might have viewers keeling over with laughter. As Borat would say, this was “VERY NICE!”