Dir: Jason Woliner. Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Irina Nowak. 96 mins
In 2006, Borat coaxed out the repulsive face of America. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Kazakhstani reporter wasn’t just a comedy character, he was a political weapon. Back then, it was shocking for people to see buttoned-up frat boys, beers in hand, comfortably declaring to cameras that they wanted slavery to return to their shores. In 2020, their ilk run the country. Times have changed and so, surprisingly, has Borat. In his Subsequent Moviefilm, the moustachioed terror returns to America, only to discover that its soul is now so poisoned, a wildly antisemitic, misogynistic guy like him comes off as oddly quaint.
Yes, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm marks the return of all the same catchphrases that plagued us in the late 2000s. Did you miss “wawaweewa”? Well, good luck escaping it for the next six months. There’s even a 2020 take on the lime-green mankini – a medical mask balanced precariously on the genitals. But these aren’t the main attraction of this sequel, which serves as a jaw-dropping expose of America in the here and now, culminating in a morally incriminating appearance by an elected official – one so startlingly vulgar that it guarantees Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will be one of this year’s most talked-about films.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – to use its full title – opens with Borat Sagdiyev’s (Baron Cohen) release from the gulag. He’s been stuck there ever since the release of his first film, which was a major scourge on his country’s reputation. Now, he has a new mission: return to America, now under Trump rule, and deliver the gift of a porn star monkey to “America’s most famous ladies man”, Mike Pence – Borat is convinced only a man of prodigious sexual charisma would ever refuse to be left alone with a woman. Once there, he discovers that Tutar (Maria Bakalova), a daughter he never even knew he had, has packed herself in the monkey’s crate and followed him to America.
Baron Cohen has outfitted the character for a slightly different purpose here. He doesn’t really need to go hunting for bigoted opinions any more, but he can remind his audience that hatred also requires a passive majority for its ideas to spread. His unwitting, real-life targets (only three people on screen were apparently in on the joke) aren’t necessarily getting caught saying something terrible. Sometimes the horror lies in the way they’ll shrug and laugh it off – no matter how dark the path they’re being led down is. When Borat asks a baker to write out a deeply antisemitic phrase on a cake, she not only complies, but surrounds the words with ghastly little smiley faces. You can tell it makes her nervous, but she never objects.
The sequel is somehow both lighter and darker in tone than its predecessor – which suits the current mood, perhaps. Moments of pure slapstick come as a relief. There’s a simple but utterly hysterical sequence of him trying to cut a man’s hair with a giant pair of rusted sheep shears. When the real-life intrusion of the Covid-19 pandemic arrives into the story, Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner, alongside a long list of contributing writers, adapt with ease – the ending still manages to deliver an all-timer of a punchline. There’s even a dash of genuine sentiment, after a pep talk from a stranger sets Tutar off on a path of self-empowerment.
Certain jokes and scenes from the first film have aged terribly, since Baron Cohen’s always had a somewhat scattershot approach to shock humour, but he seems more focused here. He hasn’t exactly dropped the derogatory jibes at Kazakhstan, but the most shocking lines are directly tied to his own offscreen efforts to combat the monstrous social spread of Holocaust denial. How he handles it will inevitably be contentious. There’s one scene that borders on the unethical, even if its participants were the only ones ever let in on the ruse afterwards. But the risks that Baron Cohen took here – both artistic and personal – are admirable. And the pay-off is worth a lifetime of being subjected to the words “very nice!”