When Borat (Sasha Baron Cohen) first introduced himself to the pop culture stratosphere (in 2006’s ludicrously titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), the character arrived during a critical sea change in American politics. Just five years prior, then-president George W. Bush was in the midst of an average presidential term, with the dead-average approval ratings to show for it. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush’s popularity soared, peaking with a historic and unprecedented approval rating just weeks after the tragedy. The wave of patriotism that sweeped the nation, and anger directed at the perpetrators of 9/11, directly benefited Bush’s administration.
But by the time Borat awkwardly stumbled, insulted, and offended his way into theaters in November, 2006, things had very clearly changed. America’s jaded view of a brutal and taxing war would prove to sink Bush’s goodwill, as his popularity crumbled from historic highs to a majority disapproval rating by the time of Borat’s cinematic arrival. And boy did Cohen capitalize, aiming darts at the previously unimpeachable patriotism in a post-9/11 America. While trying to be as offensive as possible, the original Borat poked fun at the jingoism, and racism, bubbling under the surface of the country’s noble attempts to regain it’s pride.
But that begs the question – what has inspired the controversial character’s 2nd act? Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm arrives somewhat softly (juxtaposed with the original’s highly anticipated opening) on Amazon Prime, and here Cohen aims his arrows at some typical targets: Trump, radical conservatism, and the demographic of people who believe every news headline they see on Facebook. The film begins with an in-joke about Kazakhstan’s real-life negative reaction to the original film. Borat is so embarrassing to the impassioned country that it gets Borat imprisoned. However, he gets a chance at freedom if he can complete one mission – offer his daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakarova), as a bride for US Vice President Mike Pence, thus allowing Kazakhstan to regain a semblance of national pride… or something like that.
To the surprise of no one, Borat has been mostly an absentee parent, and his imprisonment exacerbated that offense. Tutar, fashioned with an obnoxiously embellished nose and set of lips, only desires to bond with her father. But Borat treats her like an object, a commodity needed to complete his mission. In one scene, the pair head to a doctor so that Tutar can receive breast implants. The sexism associated with the event is almost forgotten as Borat and the receptionist hilariously trade barbs over a host of ridiculous details, from Borat trying to raise the last bit of money needed to cover the costs, to the receptionist telling them they can come back the same exact day to get the surgery done (that’s one helluva turnaround).
But as Borat forces Tutar through a host of demeaning acts, a rift forms between them the more Tutar sees that her freedom in America is directly contrasted with her home country’s draconian views on women’s rights. Meanwhile, Borat’s buffoonish antics position him as the clown to withstand the film’s criticism of current American culture.
But there’s something off about this Borat. It doesn’t have the shock value of the original, which is to be expected due to familiarity, but it’s partially due the landscape of the current political discourse. The sequel accurately features an American at odds with itself, but it’s social critique is way too safe. Trump is an incestuous pervert, and Mike Pence is weird for only having lunches with his wife? I’m sure some of their own supporters believe that. Rudy Giuliani sucks? Sure, but who doesn’t think that in 2020? Rudy Giuliani probably thinks that Rudy Giuliani sucks.
Aside from a few deep cuts,, such as a disappointed Borat solemnly stating “I discovered the Holocaust was just a fairy tale”, this Borat can’t ascend past the unflattering comparisons to its predecessor. The intent of the Borat character was to display his ignorance and intolerance as an exaggeration of the same negative qualities in Americans. This is never more apparent when Borat, appearing at a pep rally, gets the crowd to denounce Corona Virus as a hoax – yet a few minutes later the same crowd refers it as the “Wuhan flu.” So, the virus is either real or fictional depending on the target of the crowd’s ire in a given moment. But there’s no joke in this scene, no moment where we’re made to laugh at the inanity. Instead, the movie is a mishmash of familiar talking points between conservatives and progressives, with no clever setups or wit to tie it together. The film is still amusing, even charming, but there’s more social critique in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm than what is present here.
Part of the issue is the timing; South Park recently aired “The Pandemic Special” and tried to fit every big socially relevant from the year into one mammoth episode. Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, feels like a lesser version of that concept. Even the twist at the end of the film, unfortunately, was already done (too much funnier results) in the aforementioned South Park episode. It’s hard to maintain your status as a controversial outlaw in the world of comedy when so much of your social critique has been covered in better material. One thing the movie does that no one else has, however, is to solve the riddle of what Kevin Spacey has been up to all this time. But even that is at least 3 years too late. The harsh reality of a joke – it’s either on time, to which it can be timeless, or it’s forgotten forever.