Director: Jason Woliner
Writer: Sacha Baron Cohen
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Mike Pence, Rudy Guliani
Kazahkstan’s Premier Nursultan Nazarbayev is upset. The despot ruler of the impoverished Central Asian nation feels slighted by American president Donald Trump. Trump, he complains, is infatuated with fascist rulers around the world – Putin, Kim Jong Un, Bolsonaro etc. – but has paid the Kazahk ruler no notice.
To win him over, Nazarbayev decides to send Trump his prized Minister of Culture Johnny the Monkey as a gift. To act as his messenger, he frees the disgraced former reporter Borat Sagdiyev who has been held prisoner in a gulag for 14 years after he inadvertently humiliated the country with his documentary in 2006.
Borat returns to America to deliver the package. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the mockumentary that documents his travels.
There’s roughly a million reasons why this movie is a bad idea and shouldn’t work.
When the original Borat film was released in 2006, a lot of America’s staggering social issues (race inequality, fundamentalist religion, obsession with gun rights) were broadly known and understood by the rest of the world but in a pre smart phone age, very little of it was captured on film. Certainly not in the way Sacha Baron Cohen succeeded in getting people to let down their guard. Although President Bush was a laughing stock, there was still a general statesmanlike veneer to the rest of the Republican party and their followers that Borat so successfully peeled back in a way that felt revelatory.
In 2020, another Borat film shouldn’t really work because, well, just look at what America is now. The mask hasn’t just slipped. It’s totally fallen off the GOP and their elected leader who have openly embraced white supremacy, anti-intellectualism and unvarnished prejudice. So the idea of another film in which Borat shows Americans with these particular beliefs feels totally redundant.
What’s crazy is that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is actually…pretty good?
There’s a few reasons Cohen has been able to make this work against the odds.
Early in the film, when Borat returns to America, its established that he is too famous and recognizable as the Kazakh reporter to complete his assignment. So instead he spends the majority of the film in various disguises and new personas. This keeps the material in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm fresh and mercifully free from Cohen simply re-treading old material – my wiiiife, very niiiice, Jak sie masz? etc.
Also broadening the scope of the comedy is newcomer Maria Bakalova. In this first film Borat was accompanied by his incompetent manager Azamat. This time, he travels America with his 15 year old daughter Tutar. Bakalova is excellent in her role and is more than capable of keeping up with Cohen in the unscripted scenes in which she engages with actual unsuspecting Americans. Tutar also becomes central to the plot of the film and is key to the shift in its tone. The original film has a rather bleak, anarchic energy that focuses its lens squarely on how stupid and awful a lot of Americans are. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm strikes a more hopeful and humanistic approach as Borat changes his outlook on women thanks to his blossoming relationship with his daughter.
Prank/stunt mockumentaries are not exactly a well respected genre in cinema but I do believe there is actually a real art to crafting a good one of these. Another film released around the same time as the original Borat was the first Jackass movie. I loved that film and re-watched it many more times than I care to admit. And yet, I found the Jackass sequels – although they had individual scenes I enjoyed – never grabbed me in the same way. It comes down to crucial things like editing, pacing and tone. That first Jackass movie just really successfully captured the vibe of a group of guys hanging out and enjoying each others company that I think is as important to my enjoyment of the overall film as any individual prank or stunt.
I’ve found Cohen’s mockumentaries to be a mixed bag. The original Ali G shorts were an enjoyable novelty and I loved the original Borat film. But Bruno completely fell flat for me. I also found his most recent work – Who Is America? – to be wildly uneven from episode to episode. For whatever reason, the stars seemed to align with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The writing for the scripted scenes is good. Most of the gags actually land. Even when the most crucial scene involving Rudy Guliani was leaked days before the film’s release, the rest of what’s there is more than enough to carry the film.
I think a lot of what works boils down to Cohen and his sense of purpose with this production. Again, I think back to the mid 2000s and how the likes of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Cohen, were kings of topical, politically-charged, gross out comedy that captured the zeitgeist of the time. Over time however, Parker and Stone’s rigid “both sides” approach to their work looked increasingly mealy-mouthed in the current political landscape. They recently released a Pandemic special to complete indifference. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about it because no one I know has watched it and no one online has mentioned it. They are borderline irrelevant.
Cohen on the other hand just eviscerates Trumpism, Q-Anon followers, Zuckerberg and the like. He isn’t fucking around and he also doesn’t need to take shots at the left in an attempt to ‘balance the ledger’. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is absurdist political satire but it ends with a message encouraging American viewers to vote or risk their country sliding into an autocracy. On that final note, Cohen couldn’t be more serious.