Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is a deliciously unstable comedy. This new installment in the misadventures of Cohen’s ignorant yet fearless Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev is filled with risqué (and just plain risky) jokes. Some land. Others explode in the film’s own face like a baggy-pants comedian’s prop cigar. That’s all true to the spirit of Borat, for better and worse. Even gags that leave a troubling afterimage fit the star’s wise-ass, id-monster persona. You can’t open a comedic Pandora’s box and expect the results to be orderly and reassuring.
The story begins with Borat’s release from prison, where he spent 14 years atoning for his shenanigans in the previous film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of American to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Borat is blamed for the country’s political and financial collapse (file footage shows a stockbroker trying to kill himself by jumping from the country’s tallest skyscraper, a second-floor office in a muddy village). Like a frizzy-haired, noncombatant, pervert cousin of John Rambo, Borat is given a mission that will redeem and pardon him if it succeeds: he must journey to the United States in order to…
Actually, hold on. We shouldn’t get into that, because the described mission is wild and ludicrous and (Rambo-style) is immediately compromised. Let’s just say that it involves a monkey (actually a chimpanzee), and that when it doesn’t work out, Borat tries to mend fences between Kazakhstan and the United States by offering his only daughter, Tutar (Irina Nowak), as a prize to “Vice Premiere” Mike Pence, whose aversion to spending unsupervised time alone with women is chalked up to his voracious sexual appetite. Tutar, who was raised in captivity on Borat’s farm (like livestock—and Melania Trump, the movie insists), has a lot to learn about life, and men, and sex, and everything, because women aren’t allowed to read, learn, drive, or do anything else where she’s from. Her most treasured possession is a child’s bedtime book that depicts the vagina as a toothy maw that will, if touched, swallow the toucher’s entire body. (Irina Nowak is an incredible find, if indeed she’s really a “find.” The closing credits claim that the movie is “introducing” here, but several media outlets have speculated that she’s really Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova.)
There are a couple of other layers to the plot, revealed in due time. But those are the important ones, if you care about plot. This film really doesn’t—and why should it? As always, the gags and riffs and character comedy and cultural observations are the point here. And the high failure risk, which lends a veneer of excitement even to the dumbest bits. As directed by Jason Woller (“Nathan for You,” “Parks and Recreation”), and scripted by enough screenwriters to field the world’s least threatening rugby team, “Borat” stays focused on its core mission: positioning its hero as a sleazy fool whose flaws and excesses mirror his clueless targets so closely that they don’t realize they’re being made fun of even when Cohen stops just short of hauling out a sign that reads, “YOU ARE THE JOKE.”
At the core of the film is the belief that, for all its posturing as The Greatest Nation on Earth, the United States circa 2020 has more in common with a retrograde foreign backwater than either its government or people like to admit. Borat’s country is a kleptocracy that runs on fear, corruption, and theocratic pronouncements that never seem to apply to the people doing the pronouncing. The culture’s boundaries are set by a dominant religious sect, but their declarations of the importance of morality, ethics and mutual respect are contradicted by their private embrace (or tolerance) of sleaze, sexual depravity, anti-intellectualism and superstition, at least when practiced by members of their own tribe.
The horrible belly laughs that are generated when we see how Borat’s country treats women (as chattel conditioned to serve men from a young, even pedophilic age—one of Borat’s sons even changed his name to Jeffrey Epstein) ring hollow in the memory when we see Borat trying to position his barely-adolescent daughter as a human bribe in the US. A FedEx employee is privy to a fax exchange establishing Tutar as an underage concubine, but he doesn’t bat an eye; he might as well be overseeing the transfer of a deed to a 2015 Ford Fusion. A plastic surgery clinic doesn’t question Borat’s bringing in Tutar for breast enlargement surgery, even though she’s so young that she needs dad’s permission; nor are they fazed when he tries to pay with a bag of cash. The subtext of a lot of the jokes is that sexual exploitation of women and girls, some below the legal age of consent, is an ingrained aspect of being a financially comfortable adult man in the United States, as well as in countries that Americans like to paint as inferior.
Q-Anon comes in for special ridicule here, and it’s pointed: its followers (represented by a couple of survivalist-types that Borat briefly stays with when he’s estranged from Tutar) agree with Borat that the Democrats are “demons” and the Clintons are “evil” exploiters, yet they gladly help Borat in his odyssey to deliver his daughter as a carnal prize to a member of the Trump administration. Borat’s explanations of his own troubles are dismissed as “a conspiracy theory” by men who believe that a secret, quasi-vampiric cult (a modern gloss on the ancient blood libel) controls the levers of power. The threat of state-approved murder hangs over Borat throughout, thanks to his government’s pledge to dismember him should his mission fail. But when Borat performs a song written by his two new buddies at a fair, the audience eagerly sings along with his lyrics about how Covid is “The Wuhan Flu” and the US should chop up journalists “like the Saudis do.” The movie’s fiction mirrors the documentary reality that the star captures when he’s in character.
Cohen “retired” Borat in 2007, saying that his disguise-driven ‘incognito” brand of satire had become impossible due to his own fame and the instantaneous, identity-checking ability of search engines. And yet here he is fourteen years later, releasing a follow-up that was shot (mostly) under the radar during a pandemic. Some early scenes account for Cohen’s inability to work incognito in public: Borat, aka Cohen-in-character, gets recognized by random pedestrians, but their chasing and pestering him for autographs is chalked up to Borat’s infamy.
This launches a gallery of disguises that are like something Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau would’ve worn to fool the bad guys, only to arouse a different sort of suspicion. There’s a Soggy Bottom Boys-looking “redneck” outfit with long hair and a beard; a Donald Trump disguise that involves a fat suit and a “Mission: Impossible”-caliber face mask and hairpiece; and a “Jew” costume (drawing on Borat’s own country’s history of antisemitism) with bat wings, talons, and a Pinocchio schnoz.
As you’ve gathered (“gathered”—like you’d be reading this if you weren’t already a Borat fan!) much of the humor is deliberately provocative/offensive/filthy, and while the script has a theoretically progressive agenda (as in Cohen’s TV series, and the last Borat film, the hero’s misadventures are meant to expose latent American bigotry, depravity, bloodlust, and authoritarianism), the result risks accusations that the creators are trying to eat their cake and have it, too. Is Cohen wallowing in bigotry and ignorance by giving it so much screen time, even though he’s putting ironic quote-marks around Borat’s in-character “agreement” with much of it? And is he inadvertently creating YouTube clips and memes that bigots can strip of irony and self-awareness, and fold into the same old rancid propaganda? How responsible is Cohen for unintended consequences?
These are the conundrums faced by comics who incarnate a phenomenon that they want to critique. Some (like Andrew Dice Clay in the nineties) get swallowed up by it, to the point where they become advertisements for the thing they originally wanted to critique. That’s not the case here. But Cohen’s always on the edge and sometimes tips over (more so in “Bruno,” an often homophobic expose of homophobia).
On top of all of the movie’s theoretical/political aspects, something more conventional is going on. Although much of the movie is goofy, surreal and scathing, all of the sections that concentrate on Borat’s relationship with Tutar are weirdly heartwarming. It’s that Will Ferrell kind of heartwarming, where the script is making fun of the idea of “heartwarming” while still being heartwarming. Imagine the classic road film “Paper Moon,” but with the father and daughter replaced by sketch-comedy degenerates.
It’s fun to see contrary storytelling impulses layered on top of each other, even when (or perhaps because) it’s often hard to tell how much you’re supposed to accept at face value, and how much is a put-on. But even as Borat and Tutar become (comparatively) enlightened about culturally ingrained sexism in Kazakhstan and America, the movie anchors every element to a unifying idea: we think we’re making fun of the view through a window, but it’s a mirror.