Fourteen years after his last appearance and Sacha Baron Cohen’s announcement that the character would be retired, Borat Sagdiyev, Kazakhstan’s most famous resident, has returned in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. We already knew from the first film that Borat couldn’t understand the meaning of the word “retired” so perhaps it should come as no shock that he has resurfaced in our time of need, especially given the amount of times news reports in recent months have shown Sacha Baron Cohen was up to his old antics, but the announcement of the film seemed to be something no one saw coming and the content of it is somehow even less expected.
As with much of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy, the first Borat saw him disguising himself as a character so absurd that no one could think he was genuine, yet somehow convincing real people to say things that perhaps would’ve otherwise remained unsaid. It worked to great comedic effect and remains hilarious today but there’s a certain sadness watching it and realizing that there was a time when people espousing these sorts of ideas was considered unacceptable and the stuff of comedy movies, not something a president should say to the whole world. So, a decade and a half later in a country led by a president that feels more like an obscene caricature than even the most odious of Baron Cohen’s characters, Borat Sagdiyev could seem a bit quaint and unnecessary, and yet, this film has proven that the guerilla comedy tactics employed have never been more timely and can cause gut busting laughter alongside political scandals.
From incest being overlooked out of some ghoulish dedication to stopping every potential abortion to coronavirus measures being mocked and ignored to a sex scandal involving Rudy Giuliani, and so many more horrifying moments in between, America showed its ass with greater clarity than Borat did in his mankini and so many Americans seemed proud and excited to do it. Even in moments where the unwitting participants were not outwardly spewing hate, many accepted it without a moment’s consideration, as when Borat asked that a cake be adorned with the words “Jews will not replace us” or when he asked for the “no means yes” section of a dress shop. None of this is something that could only be shown by Borat as many of the interactions in the first film seemed to be, a brief scan through any Facebook timeline would quickly reveal the eager bigotry of so many, but perhaps this presentation with a beloved character and a comedic wink could bring it to wider attention among those who would otherwise be happy to turn away. It’s easiest to laugh through the pain sometimes and every interaction here hits that perfectly. Still, for all the hatred spewed by so many, there were moments of humanity that prompted some hope, especially one, involving Borat dressed as his idea of a Jew and a Holocaust survivor who tried to diffuse the situation and show him love, that nearly brought me to tears.
For a film that started production before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in America and continued filming through it, using real people and necessitating major changes to the whole script and being edited in record time, culminating in an insane plot twist and a celebrity cameo that was perhaps the most shocking and hilarious one I have ever seen (and I’m not talking about Pence or Giuliani!), I was amazed at how coherent it was. Even more than the first film, this one has a plotline and a mission. Though Borat’s producer Azamat is missed, he takes on a new dynamic in this one with his daughter Tutar (played by an exceptional Maria Bakalova who manages absurdity with such a genuine demeanor that it’s easy to see how people fell for it), as they both learn that women are people too. It’s scripted and improv and staged and documentary, and it all comes together in a strange and hilarious and uncomfortable and insightful manner that could only be managed by the most skilled and daring of comedians. I may have laughed less than during the first one but that stems from this one’s willingness to show the devolution of the world since, but that’s also what gave it its power, and there were still laughs a plenty with gross out humor, absurd plot points, and a sublime song choice near the end that threw me right back to middle school. It was exactly the film I hoped for and needed.
Author’s Note: Calls for voter registration and early voting have permeated all types of media for months, but they rarely say more than that. I see this as a great failure. They give no direction as to who to vote for and I would prefer if a few million Americans sat this vote out. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm also ends with a simple message to vote (or be execute) but it did take a braver stance than many and give clear indication of which side is the only possible choice. However, it also spent the ninety minutes prior exposing America as a country rotten to its core and full of idiots who are, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, maliciously dedicated to inflicting suffering on their fellow humans. Perhaps there is only so much a film can do, especially one like this, and its call to vote is a noble one, but it also raises the question of if there is ever any potential of changing this country, especially through the means that led to this point. Of course, I will still vote. One option is a mass murderer who daily tries his hardest to make the most evil and ignorant choices and redefines the level to which I thought it was possible to hate someone, and the other, for all his failings (and there are many), is not that. There is no choice. So if Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has managed to change one single mind throughout this whole nation, perhaps it is one of the most important films of the year, and that would be very nice.