The Times May Have Changed, But Borat Sure Hasn’t

21 Oct

Sup.

Think back to the time in the earlier part of this century when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Sagdiyev character wasn’t a household name. Sure, he’d appeared on Cohen’s Da Ali G Show. But with the release of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan in 2006, the world saw a whole lot more of Borat’s bumbling, racist, Anti-Semitic journalist, and those not already in the know became much more familiar with Cohen’s immersive style of guerrilla comedy.

At the time, that movie held up a mirror, and its revelations were still a bit of a shock — that ordinary Americans, particularly those in Red States and those with conservative beliefs, can be a clueless, bigoted, misogynistic lot. Back then, it was actually funny. Very funny.

Fast-forward 14 years. Now we’re in the middle of a pandemic, our culture is politically charged, and our President* creates chaos on the daily, using his bully pulpit to enable hate groups and amplify conspiracy theories. Now we see misogyny, Anti-Semitism, and racism on full display, and ignorance is often encouraged or given a free pass. The things Borat discovered all those years ago have gone mainstream. In short: Reality just isn’t funny anymore. 

So here comes our favorite Kazakh journalist, back with another cinematic adventure, the full title of which is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — but let’s just call it Borat 2, okay? Can he make things any better? Ha!

For what it’s worth, the title provides a quick plot summary of this latest film, but let me expand on that: After spending many years in a Kazakh prison for the embarrassment and shame he brought upon his home country, Borat is given the assignment of returning to America so he can present a sexually hyperactive monkey to Mike Pence. The Kazakh government hopes this gift will endear the country’s leaders to America’s current President, given Trump’s well-known admiration for leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un.

Naturally, things don’t go as planned, and soon Borat is traveling around the country with his 15-year-old daughter (played by Maria Bakalova), grooming her so he can present her as an even more attractive gift to the “Vice Premier.” And the cringe-worthy climax of all this is a scene so amazing, so stunning, that — well, let’s just say you have to see it to believe it. (Yes, it’s the one you’ve already probably heard about.)

Along the way, there are jabs involving Dr. Anthony Fauci, Melania Trump, Jeffrey Epstein, Justin Trudeau, Rudy Giuliani, QAnon, and Facebook. In fact, the film is so up-to-the-minute that its final third takes place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Borat 2 generally follows the same basic concept as Cohen’s other character-driven films and TV shows, where he gets unsuspecting people on camera doing and saying things they sometimes later regret (or should regret, anyway). It’s a gimmick that’s no longer novel, following previous films like the first Borat, the disappointing Bruno and The General, and the Showtime series Who Is America?

In spite of that, thankfully, this new film is frequently very funny. Cohen and his credited team of seven other screenwriters (!!) load up the film with so many sharp satirical and silly jokes that you may want to warn the neighbors before you start watching, lest you become too much of a disturbance. (For the record, not all of the jokes land, but more than enough do.)

The pandemic is just one of the challenges the film had to overcome. Another is that Borat is much more recognizable now than he used to be. The film deals with this head-on by having Cohen dress up in multiple disguises. As far-fetched as this can be, there seem to be no shortage of gullible souls out there who fall for it.

But that said, some of the situations do feel contrived, and too many of the participants appear to be in on the joke. (Apparently, at least one of them actually was.) It lessens the impact and makes things feel a bit forced at times.

Most importantly, unfortunately, the fact that some people in Red States are less open minded, or not as sophisticated, is no longer as shocking and amusing as it once was. In fact, some scenes try so hard to make a point and to mock the people involved that those encounters may make you groan. (One scene in a women’s healthcare clinic comes to mind.)

Through it all, though, Cohen deserves kudos for remaining fully invested in the conceit. The times may have changed, but Borat remains a gloriously offensive character, completely unaware and uneducated. And to that end, Cohen will do just about anything for a laugh — even if it ignites a riot, as his appearance at a far-right rally did earlier this summer.

Of course, it’s hard, in these politically charged times, to watch Borat 2 and not feel like you’re part of a political agenda, because there’s clearly more going on here than culture-clash comedy. We now know, through his public commentary, that Cohen has become a bit of an activist, and that he’s no fan of Trump or Mark Zuckerberg. With its mocking of people in cages, and a plot that centers around female empowerment, Borat 2 definitely has a message to communicate. The film even ends with a call to action to vote

But no matter: Given all it was up against, and his previous cinematic misfires, Borat 2 could have been a predictable disappointment. I’m glad it wasn’t, and that it’s actually worth watching.

To be clear, Borat 2 is not as good a movie as its predecessor. But if anything is surprising this time out, it’s how much of the film does work, and how much genuine laughter it provokes.

I guess, in these challenging times, we’ll take humor wherever we can get it. Even if it’s from an unsuspecting but unhesitating bakery owner writing an Anti-Semitic message on a chocolate cake. It is what it is, as a not-great man once said.

I give Borat 2 a B.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan will premiere on Amazon Prime Video exclusively on October 23.

2 Responses to “The Times May Have Changed, But Borat Sure Hasn’t”

  1. Dr Andrew Albert October 22, 2020 at 11:10 am #

    ” in these challenging times, we’ll take humor wherever we can get it.” – Yes and Yes. Looking forward to this B movie!

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