Review: Disruption, Hilarity and Even a Little Tenderness at the Expense of the Unsuspecting in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
In the lead-up to receiving an early look at Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the followup to the 2006 comedy Borat, the notes from publicists insisted that we keep certain aspects of the film a secret. Many of the participants in the new film are not actors and therefore thought they were in some sort of documentary, the usual scam that mastermind and star Sacha Baron Cohen puts in place to secure access to these players. But now that I’ve seen the new movie, I know exactly why people were being asked to keep quiet. Although we weren’t told specifically what not to spoil, it’s pretty clear in the film’s closing minutes what they’re referring to. And all I could think while I was holding my breath, waiting to see how a particular, clearly not staged sequence plays out is “How did they capture this, and how were they allowed to put this in their movie?”
With his early UK and US TV series, the Borat Sagdiyev character—a fictional Kazakh television journalist—was the one doing the interviews with politicians, newsmakers and other known cultural figures. But by the time the first movie was being shot, Borat the character was a fairly known quantity among celebrities, so Cohen turned his attention to everyday Americans—particularly uptight, religious zealots with more than a little racism and anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure. Cohen acknowledges Borat’s now iconic status in America when we see him running away from fans and even visiting a year-round Halloween store in hopes of finding a disguise or two, only to see they are selling a “Stupid Foreign Journalist” costume that looks vaguely familiar.
There’s a bit more story involved this time around. Apparently, Borat’s first trip to America brought great shame on the otherwise flawless reputation of Kazakhstan, so he was put in a hard-labor prison for many years, now released to head back to America with a gift to present to our nation via a political dignitary. (FYI, the subtitle of the film is Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit of Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.) The gift in question is one of his nation’s most important dignitaries, a monkey, which is put into a crate and shipped to America in finer accommodations than Borat gets—his cargo ship takes a route through China, Australia, Europe and pretty much everywhere else that isn’t between Kazakhstan and the U.S.
Most of the film appears to be set in Texas and was shot, at least partially, during the early weeks or months of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s not surprising that Borat lands and a rally or two where people are not only excited about not wearing masks, but many of them are strapped with open-carry AR-15s and other weapons, making the film seem a bit more dangerous in terms of the team’s health and safety. For this and many other reasons, Cohen’s faux documentaries never fail to make me anxious. Within the context of the story, when he arrives in Texas, it turns out that Borat’s daughter, Tutar (newcomer Russian actress Maria Bakalova—although weirdly her name appears as Irina Novak on IMDB.com) has stowed away in the monkey’s crate, and now he is forced to deal with a daughter he didn’t even know he had until a couple weeks earlier.
The two decide it would be easier to offer her up as a gift to a prominent American politician, so they begin with Vice President Mike Pence, who, in the first of many very public acts of humiliation, they interrupt during a massive fundraising event. Directed by Jason Woliner (a television comedy director of such hits as “Parks & Recreation,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” and “The Last Man on Earth”), the film highlights the growing bond between Borat and Tutar, who is given a makeover to make her look less like a homeless gypsy and more like a brainless social media influencer. And the plan to pass her off as a vapid American appears to be working—getting a chance to introduce and dance with her at a debutante ball results in a fantastically disgusting reveal.
Bakalova absolutely holds her own alongside Cohen at both improv and capturing a character who has an actual story arc as she discovers that women have the same rights as men (in theory) in America. The irony of conspiracy theorists is fully embraced by Borat as he spends time with a pair of prime QAnon experts who have all sorts of stories about Hilary Clinton drinking children’s blood but are horrified at Borat’s idea that a Kazakh fable about women having teeth in their vaginas is crazy talk.
There were easily a half-dozen moments (probably more) in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm where I was laughing so hard I almost couldn’t breathe. The film feels smarter, more cohesive, and far more dangerous than the first one, but there are also moments of incredible sweetness that make you feel something for both the fictional characters and the non-actors. There’s a woman who babysits Tutar at one point who might be the nicest, most patient human being on the planet, and she’s also the only one who isn’t too polite to speak the truth to a girl she believes isn’t being raised right. Near the end of the film, even Borat gives into her charms when he romantically asks her “Will you be my Black wife?”
Between Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and his performance as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7, Cohen proves what we’ve always known: that as an actor or a comedian, he’s a master of delivery. He knows how to read a room and exactly the right way to shake it up, to disrupt what needs disrupting. And with Borat, he never drops character even if it would make his life easier and safer. To him, someone else losing their cool and threatening violence against him is a mark of success—the ultimate win. And this film is an absolute scream, resulting in some of the biggest laughs I’ve had (and needed) all year.
The film debuts on Friday exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
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