Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Review
Before our very eyes, Sacha Baron Cohen has morphed into the Michael Moore of comedy. Fourteen years after the last Borat outing, he’s resurrected the character in what amounts to an irreverent “get out and vote” campaign, complete with closing title card instructing viewers to vote in the upcoming US Presidential elections. The comedian’s work has always been at its best when punching up at those in power, examining the trickle down effect of how America’s culturally conservative values lead to widespread prejudice that remains deeply entrenched. The problem with a film like Borat was the fact that, as uproariously funny as it often was, Cohen clearly wanted to have his cake and eat it too - his social commentary about America’s relationship with casual racism delivered via a broad, nonsensical archetype of a man from a non-western, predominantly Muslim country.
This is something Cohen seems aware of. In the past year his public appearances have largely been making appearances speaking out about Silicon Valley’s inability to fight hate speech and disinformation, and he’s spoken about his latest effort as a direct commentary about America becoming an illiberal democracy under Trump’s first term. Much like Fahrenheit 9/11, this is an attempt to underline the failings of an administration at its (possible) midway point, with everything from Charlottesville to Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic brought up, showing how divorced the Republican establishment, and those who parrot its views, are from reality.
But for better or for worse, Cohen still wants to have his cake and eat it - he’ll punch up towards politicians, or anybody unafraid to share racist or anti-Semitic views - but he’ll do so while twisting another nation into looking like a country of prejudiced simpletons. This isn’t to say Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is bad, with some of the sharpest writing in a Cohen film for more than a decade, but that there are many moments when he struggles to balance joyously lowbrow gags with highbrow political targets, the result feeling like a man punching down as often as he punches up.
Fourteen years after becoming an international celebrity, Borat is in jail in Kazakhstan for making the country look like the laughing stock of the world. But he’s released after the country’s President, a man aiming to become a strongman leader like Putin, sees Borat as pivotal at forging a closer relationship with the White House, hatching a plan to deliver a gift to Vice President Mike Pence - a monkey, who is also the country’s biggest adult film star. In transit, however, the monkey is killed after Borat’s daughter, Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev (Irina Nowak) stows away in the same shipping container. Hastily, the plan is revised, and Borat attempts to give his daughter a makeover so she can be auctioned off to an influential player in the Republican party.
As with Borat’s main plot about the journalist attempting to marry Pamela Anderson, the central narrative thread is really an afterthought, the film working best as a series of interlinked vignettes journeying into America’s societal failings. In its sharpest stretch, Cohen and his gazillion credited writers manage to mine the most lowbrow jokes from the most horrific moments - an extended sequence that takes Borat and his daughter from a cake shop to an evangelical Christian-run unplanned pregnancy clinic is a masterclass in perfecting this near impossible tightrope balance, blending a distressing social commentary with infinite jokes about incest and diarrhoea.
But very few moments provoke this same sense of uproarious shock, which isn’t to the detriment of the film’s set pieces but rather than the environment the film is released into. Cohen’s previous hidden camera big screen vehicles were released in a pre-social media age - Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is being released with two of its bigger sequences already having gone viral, in one case before it was even confirmed Cohen was in the clip. There’s an art to making comedy that interacts with the public in the social media age, where sequences could go viral prior to being seen in context (Nathan for You, one of the best comedy series of the past decade, understood this perfectly). So while a sequence like Cohen appearing as a country singer, crooning about the “Wuhan Flu” in front of a crowd of Trump voting coronavirus “truthers”, is funny in context, it’s just as funny out of context, the sequence arguably less funny than when it was captured on Twitter by a journalist covering the rally earlier this year. The film doesn’t need these grand public set pieces to work - but by relying on them, many of the jokes have already been spoiled upon arrival.
One of the film’s conceits is that Borat has to keep playing different characters so the gift he’s offering as a bribe will avoid detection. But this just means that we’re left with dozens of great sketches thrown into an inconsistent whole, and the lingering feeling that the comedian has reconfigured a planned second season of his Who is America? sketch show to suit a Borat narrative. Of course, many of these ideas only work because of our familiarity with the most repugnant aspects of Borat’s character - his anti-Semitism, for example, ensures Cohen can include a tangent about Facebook’s spread of hate speech.
When we get to the third act, as the warped vision of Kazakhstan becomes clearly intended as an allegory for Trump’s America and Borat is afforded pseudo-progressive character growth, the film stumbles. Cohen’s work is at its best when holding up a mirror to white America’s truest self with no editorialising - adding an indirect moral about how this can be easily changed reduces the sting from his satire somewhat. And this is all further complicated by the fact Cohen remains inconsistent with whether he is punching up or down at his Kazakh characters - at its best when utilising cultural misunderstandings for comedy, at its worst when suggesting they have innately backwards ways that only time in the west has been able to reform. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is not exactly the best vessel for a progressive political point, regardless of how well intentioned Cohen’s political sentiments are.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will be available to watch on Amazon Prime from October 23.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
Dir: Jason Woliner | Cast: Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani, Sacha Baron Cohen | Writers: Anthony Hines (screenplay), Anthony Hines (story), Dan Mazer (screenplay), Dan Swimer (screenplay), Dan Swimer (story), Erica Rivinoja (screenplay), Jena Friedman (screenplay), Lee Kern (screenplay), Nick Corirossi (additional writing), Nina Pedrad (story), Peter Baynham (screenplay), Sacha Baron Cohen (based on character created by), Sacha Baron Cohen (screenplay)