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When the first Borat movie was released in 2006, it was the equivalent of a comedy bomb being dropped on the world. Fans of Da Ali G Show had been familiar with the Sacha Baron Cohen character for six years prior to the release of the film, but still nobody was fully prepared for the big screen outrageousness that the feature had to offer. It successfully inspired fits of hysterical laughter from audiences around the globe, and as a mockumentary it also now serves as a strange time capsule for a significant moment in history, having done a ridiculously excellent job depicting American life in the wake of September 11, 2001.
Fourteen years later we’ve hit another moment of great chaos and conflict, and now Borat Sagdiyev has returned to shine a light on all of it with another jaw-dropping and hilarious film. As should be expected, it doesn’t quite have the same shock quality as its predecessor (a victim of expectation vs. surprise), but it also succeeds by mixing in plenty of new with the effort to recapture the spirit of the original. And it even manages to inject some heart into the formula.
The feature debut by director Jason Woliner, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery Of Prodigious Bribe To American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (which actually changes its title multiple times) catches audiences up with the life of its titular Kazakhstani television journalist, and reveals that things haven’t been all that great for him in the years since his hit movie was released. It turns out that said hit movie turned Kazakhstan into a laughing stock and caused the country’s economy to plummet, leaving Borat to be punished unmercifully and sent to a prison camp.
Then his opportunity for redemption comes around. The Kazakhstan government believes that there is a chance to improve the nation’s relationship with America through President Donald Trump, known for being friendly to authoritarian regimes, and because of Borat’s history with the country he is selected as an envoy to deliver a bribe. Initially the idea is to give Vice President Michael Pence the gift of Johnny The Monkey, a local celebrity chimpanzee, but that plan falls apart when Borat’s daughter, Tutar Sagdiyev (Maria Bakalova), stows away in Johnny’s crate.
Needing to improvise so that he can avoid being put to death by his government, Borat calls an audible and comes up with the idea to offer Tutar to the vice president instead. The first step to making this work is transforming the 15-year-old girl into a desirable, American-esque woman, but doing so also exposes Tutar to the reality that life is much different for women in Kazakhstan compared to the United States.
Borat 2 doesn’t have the freshness of its predecessor, but is still successfully outrageous.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has the disadvantages that come with any comedy sequel – including the existence of a set quality bar that needs to be met or surmounted to be accepted, and playing to an audience that is already totally aware of the core bit – and they do make an impact. A joke can land much better if you aren’t even aware of the setup before the punchline, and the Borat follow-up doesn’t have that luxury. As a result, some of the more basic encounters between the journalist and Americans, particularly those that are comedically heightened by misunderstandings, don’t hit with the same ferocity.
Of course, one of Hollywood’s sequel rules is that follow-ups have to “go bigger,” and Borat 2 follows protocol by making some audacious swings that hit spectacularly. Borat continues to unleash some of the most remarkably terrible things you’ve ever heard a person say in a public setting while having conversations with strangers, and the ridiculous comedic fortitude is enough to knock you off your sofa as both Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova decimate a series of organized events that they crash with their antics. A new high cinematic standard for scenes at a debutante ball is set with the film (perhaps never to be topped), and Tutar’s big moment on stage at a meeting of a Republican Women’s Club is gold.
Borat’s daughter is the film’s secret weapon.
I’d add that the popularity of Borat is another disadvantage faced by the film, as you’d think that the public’s awareness of the character would limit the “undercover” idea, but that’s not really a thing, and not only because the movie has a funny workaround for that particular problem. The real reason that it’s not an issue is because the sequel is much more of a two-hander than you’d expect, and because Maria Bakalova is everything that the movie needs. The first film put everything on Cohen’s shoulders, but here he shares the load, and Bakalova proves to be a performer more than up for the task.
Many of the best scenes in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm have the father and daughter playing off one another, but Bakalova also shows that she can do what Cohen does independently and with equal effect. It’s a very real breakout moment for the Bulgarian actress, who we’ll hopefully start to see in many more comedies in the coming years.
As a vehicle for commentary on modern American life and general humanity, Borat remains a winner.
Of course, the absurd behavior by Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova is only half the joke, as it’s the reactions that they get that provide the movie with brilliant social satire. Borat can say those aforementioned remarkably terrible things because the audience is aware that he is a fictional character; what’s really eye-opening and appalling is when the people he’s with either idly ignore him, or full-heartedly agree with his sentiments – exposing themselves and their terribleness just because they think they are in friendly company. This includes not only random Americans who the duo encounter on their journey, but also notable people whose names I won’t spoil here.
What makes Borat Subsequent Moviefilm different than its predecessor, however, is that it’s not all ugliness that is on display. There is actual heart in this film, from Tutar learning about the opportunities that exist for women outside of the hyperbolically misogynistic culture of Kazakhstan, to the ridiculously anti-Semitic Borat being embraced by a pair of Jewish women in a synagogue, to a pair of QAnon conspiracy theorists making an impassioned plea to try and save the Kazakhstani reporter from a horrible fate. It adds a compelling tonal complexity to the piece that also enhances the themes without getting in the way of the comedy.
Amid all of the insanity of 2020, it’s incredible that Borat 2 actually got made – and we’re lucky we did because it is the movie we need right now. Sacha Baron Cohen’s satiric instincts remain as sharp as ever, and the result is a sequel that is as smart as it is funny. It doesn’t have the full capacity to land like the original did, but it’s most definitely a worthy follow-up.