▶︎ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is on Amazon Prime.
If Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, indeed his panoply of screen alter egos, largely exists to expose society’s dirty, veiled little secrets, one might well wonder what role he has to play in 2020. The 14 years since his hapless Kazakh reporter’s breakout mockumentary have brought us to a very different world. Can his Gotcha!-style games hold a raised tiki torch to the extreme prejudices now routinely, voluntarily, proudly displayed in Trump’s America and beyond?
Consider the scene here where Borat swaps stories with two conspiracy theorists. They sincerely relate tales of Hillary Clinton torturing children and drinking their blood, while he counters that newborn Kazakh boys can walk out of the delivery room, unlike the weaker girls. Concerns as to whether Borat’s faux-naïve Q&As can still compete with QAnon’s outlandish fantasies seem justified.
If the times are a-changin’, thankfully so is Baron Cohen’s approach. Previously the performer was rarely seen out of character, be it that of Staines wide boy Ali G, camp Austrian fashionista Brüno or the creations in 2018 TV series Who Is America?. Lately, though, he has increasingly raised his own voice in earnest. A potent, highly publicised keynote speech at 2019’s Anti-Defamation League Summit subsumed jokes to a fierce denunciation of unregulated social media as “the greatest propaganda machine in history”, peddling fear, hatred and lies with neither compunction nor censure.
The irony here, of course, is that Borat himself was an early poster boy for fake news, albeit for satirical purposes. This sequel finds him on a life-or-death mission to restore Kazakhstan’s international reputation, which the previous film helped trash. A victim of his own earlier success, this time out Baron Cohen-as-Borat must frequently disguise himself when peddling his anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic views in Red State America, the better to entrap the unwary and ignorant.
As Borat tries to make over and, effectively, pimp out his teenage daughter Tutar to “McDonald Trump”’s inner circle, we might snigger at the shallow Instagram Influencer, the sleazy cosmetic surgeon, the Southern debutante coach. But these are small-time, fish-in-a-barrel targets; not unworthy, but wholly unremarkable both for Baron Cohen’s oeuvre (in Who Is America? he persuaded Dick Cheney to personally autograph a waterboard) and the modern age of rolling, metastasized outrage.
Fortunately, such scenes gradually become a sideshow to the film’s main events. The first is the rich narrative arc of Borat’s relationship with Tutar: his oppressive and her submissive cultural assumptions (she wants to be “kept in a golden cage” like her idol ‘Princess Melania’), and their respective – relative – enlightenment.
In fearless, scene-stealing newcomer Maria Bakalova, Baron Cohen has found a worthy ally for his carefully planned chaos. Director Jason Woliner, a TV sitcom veteran making his feature debut, keeps the pace lively, though visually the film is unremarkable. That matters a lot less with two such nuanced, alive performers centre stage.
The second is the climactic, jaw-dropping sting operation on a major Republican figurehead, followed by its plot-twist capper, which reviewers have been asked not to spoil. It’s a quite brilliant, topical gambit, unveiled in sly Usual Suspects tribute, which reconfigures everything we’ve just seen and the film’s own depictions of Kazakhstan as a backwards country – neatly dispatching those (this writer included) who’ve criticised Baron Cohen’s punching down at a real nation.
Only then is the full extent of Baron Cohen’s covert mission – the film was shot in secret during lockdown – apparent: its quickfire release mere days before the upcoming US Presidential election is a stealth missile aimed directly at Trump’s reign, even ending with the entirely serious end-credits edict “Now Vote.” A fake news-inspired fictional character helping depose a fake news-spreading Head of State would be a denouement worthy of 2020’s surreal dystopia.
Lest this all sound too solemn, rest assured there are still several set-pieces to bring the house down: a plastic baby figurine-swallowing mix-up with a pastor advising against abortions is a cringe classic.
Ultimately, perhaps unexpectedly, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm offers more proof of Sacha Baron Cohen’s admirably serious comic evolution, as well as of Borat’s enduring ability (and this will make more sense once you’ve seen the film) to go viral.
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