It’s worth considering that Borat Sagdiyev, the blissful idiot played by Sacha Baron Cohen, might be Charlie Chaplin’s evil twin. They both have a mustache and walk funny, and, like the Little Tramp, the little journalist from Kazakhstan stands up for the common man. Or appears to: The genius of Cohen’s double game is in holding a mirror up to average Americans and letting them celebrate themselves at their absolute worst.
When he did so in 2006, with the first “Borat” movie, it came as a comic shock — a revelation of a casually hateful American Id many knew was there but that had yet to be captured on film. Fourteen years later, that Id has taken over — indeed, it proudly runs the country — and so the belated sequel “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” lands on Amazon with a different and only partly effective splat. We no longer need the excuse of a reporter with a microphone to display our ugly sides. We do that ourselves now, online and in the streets.
Directed by Jason Woliner and scripted (more or less) by Cohen and a raft of other writers, “Subsequent Moviefilm” has a plot that can be roughly gleaned by an early provisional title: “Borat: Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premier Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan.” In short, to atone for the shame brought on his country by the first movie, Borat is sent back to America to present our vice president with the top Kazakh movie star, a chimpanzee. When that doesn’t pan out (don’t ask), he decides to offer up his own teenage daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), as a bride.
This leads to the film’s midpoint highlight, in which Borat, lumpily disguised as Donald Trump, crashes the February 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando with Tutar slung over his shoulder and tries to make it to the podium where Pence is speaking. He doesn’t get there, but the outrage on the part of the conference attendees is beautifully funny to see.
Outrage is Cohen’s specialty as Borat: Walking into a staid situation and slowly upping the innate absurdity until everyone screams uncle. Or even better, gradually getting people to go along with actions and statements they might hold privately but never say publicly — until Borat gives them permission. That’s how an audience at a Washington state right-wing rally ends up singing with the hero that scientists, the media, and Barack Obama should be chopped up “like the Saudis do!” Or how a baker in Alabama agrees to decorate a cake with the phrase “Jews will not replace us” — and a smiley face.
“Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” was made in secrecy and a certain amount of haste, and you glimpse an anger underneath the trenchant silliness that Cohen doesn’t seem sure how to harness. The “plot” — basically an excuse to propel Borat and Tutar from one prank encounter to another — can get strained, and the ongoing jokes about how terribly women are treated in Kazakhstan (or countries like it) are too grim to be as zany as they’re intended. And because we’re all wise to Cohen’s schtick now and to gotcha videos in general, an even greater level of uncertainty plagues some of the scenes. Do the marks know they’re being spoofed? How can they not?
Maybe because cameras are everywhere in life now, many just accept them. At one point, Borat goes into pandemic lockdown with a pair of right-wing conspiracy theorists who believe everything in the QAnon playbook, even as they are shown to be genuinely friendly to the hero. That’s where America is now, this movie says — sweet and completely out of touch with reality.
Yet for all the gags that fall flat and scenes that don’t quite play, there are enough that fuse shock humor and sly moral commentary to combust in your face. I’m thinking of the scene where Tutar, who has swallowed a miniature baby doll atop a cupcake Borat gave her, goes with him to a Christian “women’s health clinic” and asks the earnest evangelical clinician to help her “get rid of this baby my father put in me.” Or the Georgia cotillion at which father and daughter perform a putative Kazakh fertility dance that sends the debutantes — and possibly you — fleeing from the room. (Bakalova, by the way, is very good and game for just about everything.)
Or: the icing on the movie’s cake, a sequence in which a made-over Tutar interviews Rudolph Giuliani in a hotel room, hoping the former New York mayor is in the market for a child bride. (“Stick to marrying your cousin,” growls the protective Borat to Giuliani.) The scene skirts queasily around the flirtatious; Giuliani later told a reporter that Cohen “didn’t get me,” and he didn’t, or not the way one might hope in the darker corners of one’s heart. For the lighter corners, Borat encounters a lovely old lady in a synagogue who reminds him the Holocaust happened (she was there; the movie’s dedicated to her); an amusingly no-nonsense woman who talks Tutar out of getting breast implants and declines to be Borat’s “new Black wife”; and Tom Hanks as himself.
That last one’s telling. Borat may be the Little Tramp’s evil twin, but he’s also Forrest Gump’s smarter brother, and he knows exactly what’s in that box of chocolates — and how they’re making us sick.
BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM
Directed by Jason Woliner. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen and nine others. Starring Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Rudolph Giuliani. Available on Amazon. 96 minutes. R (pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, language)