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The first Borat movie was a phenomenon. Sacha Baron Cohen is a madman and has made a career of topping himself, but his whole thing works not just because it’s so crazy, but because it has something to say. Obviously the performance is the main focus, but the enduring element is not the absurdity but the quiet moments. I’m not sure I would have said that about the first one, considering the decade-plus of “my wife!” we have all lived through, but it’s absolutely true of the sequel.
When they announced Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which is actually called Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan but we’ll stick with the shorter title, I had zero hopes. The first one is crazy but it’s also self-contained. What more do you need to know? What more could there be to say? The plot of the first movie isn’t even important, I didn’t remember that it all hinged around Borat wanting to meet and marry Pamela Anderson until I revisited it. What you remember are the real-life moments, the blasé racism that Cohen was able to coax out of people with just about no prodding. You remember the mirror that he held up to our fellow Americans, not the silliness. More of that could surely work, but it would just be more of the same, right?
The sequel tries a much more complex premise and a much more traditional narrative. It is, indeed, more Borat, but it’s also a real movie in ways that Borat never was or needed to be. The original is a goofy road movie where Cohen wanders through American life to make people look silly and stupid, but the sequel finds a changed America where Borat is already a part of it. People recognize him and he’s famous enough to be a Halloween costume. The guy at the party store tells him he looks like the suit in the bag, but Cohen insists it’s not him. It’s a smart move to acknowledge that a significant portion of the country recognizes this character now and he’s thus up against a challenge if he wants everyone to be their true selves with who they think is some strange foreign reporter.
The true genius of the sequel is the casting of Maria Bakalova as his daughter. Incredibly, she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role. That’s probably scandalous to a certain kind of Academy voter, but I really think it makes sense. This could just be two more hours of horrible racists nodding along with Cohen saying crazy stuff, but Bakalova adds genuine emotion to the film. I didn’t have any interest in seeing more Borat, but I am here to tell you that you should watch more Borat, if only for Bakalova’s performance.
The film opens with Borat doing hard labor for embarrassing Kazakhstan after the release of the first movie. The government wants him to go back to America to offer a bribe to Mike Pence, because, sure, why not? His daughter stows away in a crate with a monkey who is also part of the government and a famous adult film start in Kazakhstan. Things all break poorly and Borat and his daughter Tutar must find a way into Donald Trump’s inner circle to redeem the nation and to save Borat’s life. You got all this?
The plot actually works, which I really feel like is the secret weapon. Borat does do typical Borat stuff, including getting a bakery to write an anti-Semitic phrase on a cake with absolutely zero hesitation, but mostly it’s all in service of the plot. The original feels wild at times and is always in service of a laugh first, a justification second, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm wants you to feel like these stakes matter. It’s a neat trick in a ridiculous comedy and one that I mention this many times because it really is pretty remarkable.
Tutar has been raised with some terrible ideas about what women can do in the world and the role of femininity as part of her identity, and a lot of her characterization is spent undoing that programming. Some of the basics are a statement about other cultures, but a lot is about America itself. Sure, it starts with Tutar asking for a golden cage to live in, but a lot of what she is shown as “enlightened” American society is similarly grim. Not every critique is as clear as the racist cake woman, but a parade of people who are shocked by the gross-out stuff in Borat’s life try to tell him that women acting stupid and debutante balls are actually the way to go. It’s not really that much better and them not realizing that is the point.
The world of 2020 isn’t completely different than the world of 2006, but in the time between the two movies our ability to be shocked by objectively shocking things has dulled. I couldn’t help but think about that during a scene towards the end where Borat gets a crowd to sing a happy tune about how the Saudi government tortures journalists and conspiracy theories about the pandemic. I remember the similar elements of the first movie feeling horrific. It felt like some of those had to be staged or there had to be something else happening. Obviously some people will sing a racist song with you in some dark corners of the world, but we’re not really like that, are we?
Well, yeah, we are. Donald Trump’s presidency was a constant reminder of what America actually always has been and it removed a lot of people’s ability to be shocked. Making a movie that shows people even worse than you expect them to be is a tremendous challenge in 2020 that it wasn’t in 2006, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm clears the bar. When you see people on screen talking about wanting to sleep with Borat’s daughter as soon as he leaves or faxing death threats back and forth or whatever else moves the plot along, it’s just less surprising now. Shelving some of the crazy stuff and replacing it with a somewhat tender, sorta, story about a father and his daughter was a good play.
It’s still pretty crazy. I don’t want to spoil any of the genuinely wild stuff, but a dance scene among the debutantes should be included in the Oscar highlight reel for Best Supporting Actress forever if Bakalova wins. It is unbelievable. You just have to see it.
I don’t know that we needed more Borat and I’m pretty sure we don’t need even more, but this is worth your time. If you’re aware of anything from it you know the Rudy Giuliani part, where he agrees to an interview with Tutar and then goes to a hotel room with her. It’s pretty wild to see even if you know what’s coming. Giuliani seems to be speed-running ruining his life over the last handful of years and this performance is just another part of that disaster. With most of the real people in these movies you can at least see how they got into this mess, but I really can’t imagine what Giuliani was thinking here.
The whole experience is tighter than Borat and it really does deserve to be seen. The Trump stuff is pretty light, which works to showcase Tutar and Borat as characters. Bakalova is the standout and it’s not gimmicky at all that she’s up for an Oscar for a damn Borat movie. She’s funny as hell, especially when she coaxes people into telling the jokes for her as an interviewer. This had to be a huge task and to balance real pathos with an absurd premise is an accomplishment worthy of your attention.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is a lot better than Hillbilly Elegy. Most things are, but it’s also better at the thing Hillbilly Elegy is trying to do. Both movies want to present a look at “real” America, with obviously very different suggestions of what you’ll find when you look. Hillbilly Elegy feels forced and slanted, with ridiculous, long scenes to express simple ideas. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is obviously ridiculous, but you learn a lot more from quick commentary that isn’t underlined. Borat the character is a bumbling nightmare, but Cohen the storyteller isn’t turning to camera to explain “that was racist!” Your movie should be at least as artful and smooth as a Borat movie. That’s where the line is.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s not really trying to be. This is supposed to make you think, at least a little, and it does that. It’s funny even though you know the Borat deal at this point. Bakalova’s performance is my favorite I’ve seen so far this year and while I don’t think she’s gonna win the Oscar, I really do want to point out that it’s not a stunt. The Academy is so often a decade or more behind and so ham-fisted so often that it’s worth praising them when they do something just a little bold and just a little bit interesting.
You can watch Borat Subsequent Moviefilm on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.