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Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

February 27, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

There are some films that leave me scratching my head as to why they have been so acclaimed. And Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a belated sequel to the 2006 film which finds actor Sacha Baron Cohen reprising his role as fictional Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, is one of them.

The film, which was shot in secret last year during the pandemic, sold to Amazon, and released on Prime Video in October just before the American presidential election, has attracted all sorts of praise for its core message and supposed daringness. Only the film I saw, which is up for three Golden Globes including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, wasn’t very good.

Watching Borat Subsequent Moviefilm feels like watching a comedian trying to revive their old shtick. There is a nostalgic appeal to it, sure, but it also feels stale. And nostalgia for the first film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, is a big selling point for this sequel. The film literally opens with Borat saying some variation of “this my wiiife, she niiice…. NOT!” within the first few minutes, words that have been quoted and referenced to death in the decade-and-a-half since the release of the first one.

As it turns out, Borat has been put into exile in Kazakhstan after bringing back the first film, and has spent the past fourteen years in the gulag, being blamed for the country’s financial collapse. In order to get Kazakhstan back in good standing with US of A under the leadership of “McDonald” Trump, Borat is sent back to America so he can present famous porn star Jonny the Monkey as a gift to “Vice Premier” Mike Pence. But these plans are disrupted by Borat’s discovery that he has a teenaged daughter named Tutar (Maria Bakalova) that he never knew about, who is kept in a shed and treated like a farm animal.

When Tutar sneaks away with her father to America, in hopes of meeting her idol Melania Trump, Borat decides to gift her to Pence instead, following a mishap with Jonny the Monkey. Raised in a society that doesn’t treat women as equal, and taught by her father that women are incapable of driving or reading and that their “vagines” are like Chinese finger traps, Tutar is confused by the sight of women moving around freely in America, and goes on a journey of self-discovery.

Because the first film was a literal pop culture phenomenon and everyone in America now recognizes Borat, he must adopt a number of other disguises, which is really just an excuse for Baron Cohen to play dress up and create new characters. It’s a conceit that doesn’t really work, though, because it requires us to believe that Borat, the character not the actor who plays him, is himself a strong enough actor to pull this off. But maybe I’m just overthinking things here.

From a storytelling perspective alone, this sequel makes little sense. The arc of the film comes from Borat having his bigoted views challenged and learning that women are not second-class citizens who should be treated like farm animals. Except, didn’t this already happen in the first movie? One of the main messages of the original was about Borat discovering that women are seen as equal in America and bringing this message back to Kazakhstan. Now this message seems to have been unlearned just so that his character can complete a similar arc in this film involving his daughter.

It’s also not quite clear who exactly is supposed to be filming all of this, which ruins the illusion that we are watching real interactions and not staged scenes. In the first one, Borat’s assistant Azamat (who has now apparently been turned into a chair, in one of this film’s weirder and more random gags), played a key role and was shown to be orchestrating the filming and arranging interviews. Because there is no one here to play that role, the mockumentary conceit that made the first film feel unique falls apart in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.

In 2006, the idea of going up to random people in character and capturing their reactions also felt somewhat fresh and new. Nobody in America knew who Baron Cohen was back then, and the reactions, for the most part, felt genuine. Now pretty much everyone has a camera on their phone, and anyone with a YouTube channel can attempt these sort of pranks. In the age of social media and viral videos, it’s hard to imagine most of the people here not realizing they are being set up, and some of the supposedly “real” interactions feel like people playing along with what is obviously a joke being filmed by a camera crew.

And the few people who really were duped into believing it call into question the ethics of the whole thing. Like the case of Jeanise Jones, a kind grandmother that Borat hires to babysit Tutar, handing her a chain and water bowl to keep his daughter tied up like a dog. Jones, who plays a fairly pivotal role in the film, has gone on record to say that she believed she was taking part in a documentary and thought that this girl was really being abused.

The genuine concern that Jones has for Tutar’s well-being is felt in the film, including a moment between them in a car, and it is somewhat poignant to see the way that she tries to empower her. But it also feels kind of gross and exploitative when thinking about the circumstances behind how these scenes were filmed. They essentially tricked Jones into appearing in the film, though she has said that it’s partially her fault for not fully reading the contract.

In another sequence, Borat shows up to a Synagogue dressed in a grotesque “Jewish” disguise that isn’t even funny on the grounds of satire, complete with claws and an elongated fake nose. The character is crushed because he has just been introduced to Holocaust denialism and told that this historical event, which is celebrated in his country, didn’t actually happen. Inside, he meets two older Jewish women, including Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans, who passed away shortly after filming.

Instead of throwing him out, they comfort him and share soup with him. Evans patiently listens to his bullshit, while constantly challenging him and confirming that, yes, the Holocaust did happen. Baron Cohen, who is himself Jewish, reportedly did break character afterwards to explain who he was, and the film is dedicated to her memory. But Evans was reportedly distraught by the encounter, and her estate filed a lawsuit against the film, saying that she never would have agreed to participate had she known they were filming a satirical comedy.

It shows how shameless Baron Cohen is in terms of trying to get a laugh, but the whole scene just made me feel sad and I found it very hard to find humour in it. The deeper problem is that Borat’s shocking anti-Semitism, rooted in garish stereotypes of Jewish people, simple isn’t that funny anymore, especially when he is subjecting an unwilling participant to it. Baron Cohen’s entire schtick is about trying to expose people’s hidden bigotry by capturing them on camera at their worst, but in these key moments with Jones and Evans, he actually ends up showing people’s inherent kindness instead.

In other scenes, the reactions feel manipulated by staging and careful editing. Take, for example, an elaborate sequence in which Borat crashes Mike Pence’s speech at CPAC, dressed in a full Trump costume complete with a mask and fat suit, and is quickly escorted out by security. The film makes it seem as if the former Vice President takes note of him during his speech, but these reaction shots were clearly edited together in post. You can watch live coverage from the event online, and it’s not clear from any of it that Pence could actually see what’s going on at the back of the auditorium from his place on stage. The prank falls flat.

In another scene that fell flat for me, Bakalova’s character tells a group of Republican women about masturbating for the first time. I’m sure Baron Cohen staged this sequence assuming he would get more of a reaction from these conservative women, but they don’t seem particularly scandalized, and react more in an underwhelming “that’s great, but we don’t need to hear about it” sort of way. Because of this, the joke doesn’t land, but Bakalova keeps going anyway, which is the equivalent of hearing crickets at the comedy club. It’s a scene that would have needed more of a reaction for it to be funny, because without one, what’s the point?

The film’s most talked about sequence happens when Bakalova’s Tutar, posing as a right-wing journalist, nets an interview with Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor proceeds to hit on her in his hotel room, leading to the much discussed moment when he puts his hand down his pants after she removes his mic pack. It’s an incredibly awkward and embarrassing scene for Guiliani, to be sure. But, to play devil’s advocate, he is pretty clearly tucking his shirt back in, and there is no indication that he thought she was underaged. Still, it did take balls to pull off a scene like that, even if it does feel like a clear set up, so I will give them that.

The bulk of the praise around the film has been directed towards Bakalova’s performance as Borat’s daughter, and the Bulgarian actress does commit herself to playing the role. But the characterization also gets a bit tiresome after a while, and I really don’t think her performance is worthy of the awards attention it has been getting. Much of the praise seems to focus on how “fearless” her work is for staying in character and pranking people. But this makes it no more worthy of awards attention than, say, Johnny Knoxville in Bad Grandpa, or even Baron Cohen himself for his role. Giving her an Oscar nomination would feel like a major stretch.

The other now-infamous moment is the scene where Borat, dressed as a hillbilly, performs the disturbingly catchy “Wuhan Flu” song at a far-right protest against the lockdown. The song is supposed to be written by two “real” guys that Borat ends up quarantining with in the film, a pair of wacky QAnon conspiracy theorists who invite him into their home during the pandemic. The crowd starts singing along with the offensive song, which includes lyrics about injecting Obama “with the Wuhan flu” and chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do.”

The film cuts before showing the crowd start to turn on him, which is reportedly what actually happened on the day. This sequence was quite literally staged, with Baron Cohen performing on a separate stage from the main event, which was set up for the film. But it’s still one of the better scenes in this mediocre sequel, getting closer to the more live-wire energy of the first one.

At best, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will be remembered as a strange time capsule of the very weird year that was 2020, but I can’t really imagine it holding up as anything more than that. It’s an obvious, disjointed sketch comedy that has been wildly overhyped for political reasons. The illusion of the film simply never really worked for me. It feels too controlled and too manipulated to seem completely spontaneous, and several of the real moments left a bad taste in my mouth. Your mileage will vary, of course, but I found much of the film to be more tiring than entertaining.

The anarchic spirit of the original has been replaced by a sense of self-righteousness, but Baron Cohen’s message isn’t anywhere near as deep as he seems to think it is. I’m also not really sure what minds he is trying to change, since it feels like he is preaching solely to the choir. It’s hard to imagine the handful of people on the fringes of Western society who actually hold ludicrous beliefs that the Holocaust never happened, or that women should be treated as inferior, having their small minds changed by a Borat film. And there is plenty of bigotry that is already on full display on the internet, so Baron Cohen’s attempts to expose it here simply isn’t as shocking as it was in 2006.

The film was released in the days leading up to the American election as a sort of indictment of the whole Trump era, and it ends with a reminder to vote. Not only does this call to the polls make it feel instantly dated when watching it after the election of Joe Biden, but it also makes it feel less like a movie and more like a strange sort of PSA. The trouble is that I didn’t find it particularly funny or insightful. It’s an obvious comedy that hits easy targets, and one that, more importantly, didn’t make me laugh sufficiently enough to see the point of it.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in Canada.

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