Second Verse, A Little Different Than the First
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is streaming on Prime
How does he do it? He must have the luck of Loki or some other trickster god on his side, considering the pranks he’s pulled have edged out of the realm of the audacious and into the realm of the openly suicidal. How is it possible that Sacha Baron Cohen hasn’t been tarred and feathered, shot out of a cannon, or drawn and quartered yet?
Of all the genres out there, comedy is the one that takes the most courage. It’s not just about putting yourself out there. You have to be willing to step into the spotlight, act like a ding-dong, and run the risk of not being thought funny. Add to that the kinds of jokes you’re telling and who those jokes are directed at, and it seems that Cohen is about due for a Purple Heart.
Of all the disguises, accents, and personas that Cohen has inhabited, the one that cemented his fame was Borat Sagdiyev. Everyone knows who Borat is. Even people who have never seen Borat will joyously exclaim, “Very nice!” or “My wife!”* After his 2006 mockumentary vacuumed up all the critical acclaim and money, Cohen retired the character, claiming he had become too famous to play him effectively. Things change, and now we have the return of Kazakhstan’s not-so-favorite son in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
At this point, I’ll usually offer a synopsis of the film, then we’ll talk about what worked and what didn’t. If you’re not too familiar with the oeuvre of Sacha Baron Cohen, surprise is the key to everything he does. We’ll go over the plot below, but in order to get the Borat experience properly, I suggest skipping the next couple paragraphs until you’ve actually seen the film. Onward!
After the events of the first film, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) returns home and is quite surprised to discover his actions have not showered his homeland in glory. So much so that he spends the next fourteen years sentenced to hard labor in a gulag. Out of nowhere, he’s released and plopped in front of Kazakh Premier Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu).
Borat’s mission is simple. Scratch that, his mission is ridiculously difficult. The easy part will be bringing back a chocolate cake to the Premier that’s decorated with anti-Semitic slogans. As far as everything else is concerned, he must repair the relationship between Kazakhstan and the good ol’ US and A.
Precisely how is that supposed to happen? Well, initially a monkey is involved. Also involved is Tutar (Maria Bakalova), Borat’s fifteen-year-old daughter. As is the custom, she’s living in a barn, and Tutar is patiently waiting to be snatched up by a much older man, married, and placed in a cage. You know, just like her idol Melania Trump.
With that, Borat’s plan comes together…such as it is. He’ll travel to America and give Tutar as a gift to noted sexual dynamo Vice-President Mike Pence. He’ll also get Tutar a makeover, attend a debutante ball, befriend a couple of Q-Anon supporters, pay for breast implants with a literal bag of money, and clown on CPAC.
Oh, and Rudy Giuliani becomes involved, and he doesn’t cover himself in glory.
Like the first film, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doesn’t just push the boundaries of good taste, it shreds them with a chainsaw. Director Jason Woliner had a daunting task ahead of him. He needed to make a sequel that felt of a piece with the original, introduce new characters, and do it all in a quasi-improvisational style of filmmaking. For the most part, he succeeds, and the film bounces from scene to scene with a joyous and absurd energy. Jokes are flung at the screen quickly enough that if one doesn’t land for you, give it about 15 or so seconds for the next one.
As far as the script is concerned…? While there are nine credited writers, I suspect we’ve got a situation where they come up with scenarios and a little bit of connective narrative tissue, then let loose Cohen and Bakalova to improv like crazy. Despite that, there’s a depraved sweetness at play in the relationship between Borat and Tutar. Up until now, we’ve mostly just seen Borat bouncing off clueless racists or bemused regular folks. The Borat/Tutar pairing creates interesting and almost instant tension, such as the moment where a professionally disinterested employee at a plastic surgeon doesn’t seem to give a damn that a much older man is paying for the breast implants of a teen with a giant-ass bag of cash. That’s only one moment where people witness alarming behavior toward a young woman and blow it off. It’s not all stupid und drang though. I’ll point to a subplot with Tutar and Jeanise Jones, a woman paid to “babysit” Borat’s daughter who helps the young woman see her worth.
A word about Jones and the other folks roped into this film.* I understand that she was paid for her time in the film, and she was told that a legitimate documentary was being filmed. Jones was quoted by The New York Post that she felt betrayed by the film crew and that she thought the weirdness before her was legit. At what point did she and others realize that something was off? Speaking of things that are off, you’ve probably seen the closing scenes of the film featuring America’s Mayor. Putting it all in the context of the film, Giuliani’s behavior is so much worse. He leers at Bakalova, constantly touches her, makes creepy remarks, and that’s before the two of them get into the bedroom! Just imagine what he’s done to young women that we haven’t heard about.
If you’re looking for a wide variety of acting, you’re not going to find it here. Other than a few minor “Kazakh”** characters, it’s pretty much Cohen and Bakalova rampaging through the lives of unwary Americans. Still, this sort of thing requires both pure courage and a degree of improvisational skill that’s rarely seen. We all know that, if you give Sacha Baron Cohen a camera crew and a disguise, something funny is likely to happen. Bakalova matches him with a willingness to do anything and adds a layer of sweetness that pushes their partnership to the next level. Don’t believe me? Just watch the scene where she begs him for a cage.
Someone is going to watch Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and become Very Offended. They will claim that Sacha Baron Cohen hates America, or is a misogynist, or is a socialist, or is a racist. They will, with a straight face, tell everyone within earshot that there are just some things you can’t joke about. With a little bit of luck, they’ll be ignored. With a lot of luck, they’ll become Cohen’s next target. His degree of courage might be tasteless, but it’s always necessary.
*I’m not thrilled about having Jones, a woman who seems like a genuinely decent person, be included in the same company as the vile Giuliani.
**One of the great jokes of this series is the non-English languages. Cohen is speaking Hebrew, Bakalova speaks Bulgarian, the Premier speaks Romanian, and so on. Americans are so dumb that we can’t even tell different languages apart!