Fourteen years after Sacha Baron Cohen unleashed an arrogant, ignorant Kazakh clown upon unsuspecting American rubes, he’s back – yet faces major obstacles returning to the same shtick that made him an international star with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. First and foremost, Borat becoming iconic makes it harder to catch Americans unawares. Thankfully, this clever but clunky sequel finds a brilliant way to pivot.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan picks up with its eponymous anti-hero in chains and filth. See, much like the real-life inhabitants of the town where Cohen shot in the first film, Borat’s countrymen loathe him for making them look like fools. So, his worldwide fame was rewarded with public humiliation, junk pummels, and imprisonment. However, the Kazakhstan government feels they can get in good with President Donald Trump. After all, if the guy will pal around with tyrants like Vladimir Putin and pedophiles like Jeffrey Epstein, why not Borat?
The disgraced reporter has one shot at redemption: a diplomatic mission where he is to bestow an offering to a high-ranking member of the Trump team. Sadly, tragedy befalls the prized monkey meant to be a gift. So, a desperate Borat offers his 15-year-old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) in its place. Raised along livestock, she’s very eager to be owned by a man three or four times her age, especially if it means she gets a golden cage like Melania Trump! However, to make her desirable to an American creep, Borat takes the advice of an Instagram influencer and self-proclaimed “sugar baby” to give Tutar a proper glow up.
This premise allows for Novak and Cohen to run amok around America. However, Borat’s fame means he attracts crowds and frat boys who yowl his catch phrases with riotous abandon. So low profile is out of the question with that look. No worries. Several new costumes/characters are unfurled, so Cohen can mix it up at debutante balls, plastic surgery clinics, and a “rally for rights” for anti-maskers who believe COVID is a Democrat-engineered hoax.
Here, Cohen is in his comfort zone. As in the first film, his charismatic dunderhead collides with kindly Jews, rowdy rednecks, smirking misogynists, and a compassionate Black woman, who serves as a spiritual guide. (Yep, 2020 and that problematic trope is still going strong.) As such, some bits seem retreads, like when Borat coaches conservatives to join him in a hateful sing-along. Plus, much of the bad behavior caught on tape feels less illicit when our cultural landscape is dominated by the discourse around a president who retweets conspiracy theories, vicious videos, and name-calling attacks on his political rivals.
Trump is a big, broad target. Yet many of Cohen’s blows feel weak, not because of a lack of earnestness or acuity, but because by now we’ve heard these jokes over and over. It’s not fresh or bold to mock the president’s parade of criminal cohorts, or his insistence COVID-19 would never hurt America, or his various grotesque comments. So rather than funny, Cohen’s jibes are frustrating, because we’re reminded how all this horror hasn’t shaken Trump from power. So, when it comes to the Borat solo stuff, your mileage may vary, perhaps depending how online you’ve been during the pandemic.
The pandemic itself is another big obstacle, as the film was made in part during lockdown. Therefore, mounting uneasiness creeps in as Borat and Tutar swan into social settings stuffed with unmasked people. To director Jason Woliner’s credit, this tension gives way to a third act that is shocking on several levels, most prominently because of a jaw-dropping interview, in which a major Trump acolyte is caught on tape being a creep. It’s here where Borat Subsequent Moviefilm hard turns from haphazard to hard-hitting. But Cohen and Borat are not why.
It’s Bakalova, who absolutely steals this movie. She’s given a dizzying task of keeping up with Cohen, a masterful improviser who never seems to break character. She’s pitch-perfect whether being his foil or sidekick. Then, she’s asked to do interviews on her own, creating a character that must have a believable familial resemblance to Borat, but not feel like a sloppy copy. With a bracing guilelessness, Novak delivers bawdy bits and bombastic pronouncements. While Borat’s shtick has grown stale, Tutar allows a new insight, playing a young woman seeking to understand modern America. She’s regarded with repulsion by some, pity by others, and deep, radiant consideration by a warm but no-nonsense mentor. Together, Bakalova and Cohen are incredible, bickering back and forth in their made-up language with a fiery passion that bewilders onlookers. Yet, beneath this silliness the two build a genuinely touching arc about a deadbeat dad who comes to truly love and appreciate his daughter as more than a tool for his ego.
Their bond feels outrageous yet sweet, folding in cupcakes, dancing, and menstruation in ways you couldn’t possibly predict. Tutar allows a new side of the Borat character to blossom. But on her own, Bakalova is outstanding, exploring damaging double standards, gendered beauty norms, and self-love in ways outlandish yet undeniably winsome and hilarious. Then, comes the climactic interview, which Cohen could never have done without her and which demands a bravery that is staggering. If comedy is risk-taking, Bakalova bungee jumped with aplomb from literal hot mess to Fox News blonde and back to something unexpected and thrilling.
Ultimately, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a bizarre experience. Cohen has built his career on wild characters and provocative humor. However, if comedy is tragedy plus time, perhaps it’s too soon for such lampoons about Trump and his COVID-mishandling. Punch lines feel like sucker punches, providing not escape but a harsh reminder of the hellscape that is 2020. Yet for all the wonkiness of Cohen’s quest to satirize a president who is essentially a cartoon villain, he had the self-awareness to share the spotlight with Bakalova, who brings with her a fresh voice, fearlessness, and major heart. You might come for Borat. But you’ll stay for Tutar.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” streams Friday on Amazon Prime Video.