Dir: Jason Woliner; Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova. Cert 16+ recommended, 96 min
Comedy has struggled to keep up with reality of late, but you’d have rather hoped that Borat – Sacha Baron Cohen’s grotesque, anti-Semitic, sexually incontinent Kazakh roving reporter – would have remained comfortably ahead of the curve. Sadly not. In 2020, why bother sending in an undercover buffoon to expose the vices and hypocrisies of public figures, when they’re perfectly happy to do it themselves on Twitter, or their own campaign rally stage?
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, released this Friday on Amazon Prime Video, marks the first significant outing for Baron Cohen’s most notorious comedic alter ego in the 14 years since the release of the (tremendous) first Borat feature. For the most part, it’s despairingly threadbare stuff – a string of half-formed, recycled and disjointed pranks you suspect wouldn’t have survived the quality-control process on the original, effortfully connected post hoc by largely uninspired scripted scenes.
The project appears to have been conceived as a surprise walk-on turn in this year’s US electoral circus, allowing Baron Cohen to bait and embarrass various Trump supporters and aides at an especially high-stakes moment. It’s presented as the story of a diplomatic mission, as Borat returns to the United States to present his 15-year-old daughter Tutar (played by the 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova) as a gift to Vice President Mike Pence, in the hope this might elevate Kazakhstan onto President McDonald (sic) Trump’s list of favourite autocracies, alongside North Korea and the Philippines.
For Tutar, this is an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a lifelong role model: “Will my cage be nicer than Melania’s?” she dreamily asks. And for Baron Cohen and his team of writers – nine are credited, including the star himself – it looks like a promising enough springboard into America’s current state of political dishevelment.
Two problems quickly present themselves, however. One is that Borat himself remains highly recognisable to prospective butts of the joke, and the film’s chosen workarounds – to either have the character disguise himself with prosthetics and a fat suit as an “ordinary American”, or delegating interviewing duties to his daughter – simply don’t work, and muffle the humour under one too many layers of pretence.
The other is that the central pillar of Borat’s act – interviews with unsuspecting strangers – is hugely impeded by the lockdown conditions under which much of Subsequent Moviefilm was shot, which surely goes at least some way towards explaining the agonising lack of strong material. When filming began in secret late last year, no one could have guessed that the entire plot, never mind the production schedule, would have to be rebuilt around a global pandemic.
A late sequence at an anti-lockdown rally just about clicks, with Borat camouflaged as a be-dungareed bluegrass act who leads the crowd in a pro-torture, anti-journalist singalong while the occasional Sieg Heil bobs up in the crowd. But the film’s climactic gotcha – an interview between Tutar and Trump confidant Rudolph Giuliani, in which he gets a little touchy-feely with the young woman while parroting some reactionary Covid talking points – doesn’t paint the former New York City mayor in a noticeably worse light than any of his recent talk show appearances.
It’s amusing enough to watch Giuliani scramble for the exit when Borat thunders into the hotel room in a pink leotard, but the laughter seldom swells to the gales of appalled glee that the best Baron Cohen provocations tend to elicit, and only a couple of skits fall into the gobsmacking bracket. One, involving much menstrual leakage, is an inspired piece of situationist clowning. (Two or three more of these would have worked wonders.)
The second sees Borat meeting with an elderly Holocaust survivor while posing as a “Jew”, complete with a Pinocchio-grade nose and bags of gold and marionette strings in hand. The completely unwarranted grace shown by this woman towards someone who, for all she knows, is a raving anti-Semite has a moral force that knocks you off-balance, and momentarily transforms Subsequent Moviefilm into a worthwhile enterprise.
Then, alas, it’s back to the offcuts and B-sides and the gags you’ve heard told better before. It’s the opposite of what a Borat film should feel like: business as usual.
On Amazon Prime Video from Friday October 23