Movie Review - Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make
By Matthew Huntley
November 8, 2020
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a decade and a half since the original “Borat” (2006) arrived in theaters, smack dab in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term as President of the United States, and just prior to the midterm elections. I remember that time distinctly because I was hoping the “ugly side of America” that “Borat” revealed would incite people to question and evaluate their values, especially if those values justified discriminating against or preemptively judging other people. And if they did, perhaps they’d be prompted to vote for leaders at the highest levels of government that didn’t subscribe to or condone such myopic ways of thinking.
OK, clearly I was naïve, because I highly doubt a small movie such as “Borat” had that kind of influence on viewers’ political persuasions, as there were obviously much greater factors at play that allowed the Democrats to take control of both houses of Congress that year. Still, I’d like to think if someone was on the fence about which way to vote, perhaps watching “Borat” might have pushed him or her toward the more progressive side. As chaotic a time as 2006 was, it was also tame enough that a film like “Borat” (its raunchy and scatological humor aside) could be viewed as bold, shocking and useful because it got us to maybe see what was wrong with us as a people and illustrated just how irrational we can sometimes think and behave.
Now comes the sequel, aptly titled, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” and while it has the same noble intentions as its predecessor, it’s unfortunately (and probably inevitably) not as fresh, not to mention funny. However, that’s not to say it isn’t still useful, but more on that in a bit.
As a mockumentary that seeks to shock and entertain by once again having writer-producer-star Sacha Baron Cohen dress up and assume the identity of fictitious Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev in order to prank unsuspecting, real-life individuals—as a way to exemplify not only the absurdity of what Borat says and does but also the absurd way unassuming people sometimes react—the movie is a victim of its time. In 2020, we’re already well into an era in which absurdity is the new normal, and so much of the movie feels less like a brazen and uproarious comedy and more like a daily newscast that doesn’t tell us anything terribly new or interesting. We’re used to people acting and reacting outrageously.
This isn’t to undermine director Jason Woliner or Baron Cohen’s efforts, because I still sensed their underlying energy and dedication to the material. But as comedians and satirists, I wish they had chosen different ideologies to lampoon and public figures to target, or perhaps narrowed them down a bit. As staunch leftists themselves, they predictably go after right wing politics; conservatism; patriarchy; racial and ethnic stereotyping; white supremacy; sexism; fake news; preposterous conspiracy theories; the mishandling of global pandemics, etc. And, by extension, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Jeffrey Epstein, Rudy Giuliani, etc.
I’m not saying all of these notions and people don’t deserve to be mocked, but they are already so ubiquitous and so ridiculous just by being what and who they are that any effort to call more attention to them or make fun of them feels like an exercise in futility and a waste of good resources. Believe it or not, there are other things happening in the world, so why give them more coverage? At several points throughout the movie, when my wife reacted to what was happening on-screen by exclaiming, “Ugh!” “That’s awful!” or “Oh, my God!,” my response was, “Are you really that surprised?” In other words, most of the ugliness “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” uncovers is expected and par for the course, which initially made me wonder, what is the point of the movie?
Then, a few days after watching it, it dawned on me: Maybe the shock value of “Moviefilm” is that it isn’t shocking. Maybe what Woliner and Baron Cohen wanted to show was that neither the people in it nor the viewers watching it are all that startled by what happens or the words that come out peoples’ mouths, no matter their political or religious beliefs. And therein lies the problem: we’ve all become so numb and desensitized to extreme people, behavior and practices that we just sort of accept them as they are, without question, when we should really be speaking up and questioning everything.
Take, for instance, one scene during which Borat heads to a farm equipment store to buy an animal cage. He tells the salesman the cage will be used for his daughter. The salesman hears this but appears not think much of the idea and, from what I gather, that it’s even normal since the Trump Administration has essentially “caged” families in detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In another scene, Borat asks a baker to write out “Jews will not replace us” in frosting on a chocolate cake, echoing the chant by white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA in 2017. The baker, simply fulfilling her customer’s request, proceeds to do just that and doesn’t even think to refuse or protest.
The movie is filled with many other apathetic reactions to arguably ludicrous and reprehensible behavior, and even though such tepid responses aren’t surprising, they’re still appalling. Have we all gotten this complacent, lazy and/or scared to express ourselves directly about things we inherently know to be immoral? Sure, we can Tweet, post and write movie reviews, but what happened to speaking our minds in person? The movie awakens us to the idea it’s wrong we’ve become so jaded and lethargic when it comes to the persecution of other people and that too often we simply let things slide. In fact, it jumpstarts us to act like human beings again, and we draw inspiration, for instance, from Jeanise Jones, a black babysitter in the film who isn’t afraid to voice her thoughts about women deserving self-respect and respect from others. On this level, “Moviefilm” has a veritable purpose.
As a comedy and pure entertainment, however, it’s not as effective. This is a shame, too, because Borat the character, in spite of his ignorance and impropriety, is still so innocent and loveable, and so we wish he had found himself in a more inspired screenplay. Cohen and his fellow seven writers once again blend the mockumentary gags with a goofy side plot that turns out to be a mostly dull and frivolous distraction.
The “plot” picks up 14 years after the first film when Borat is serving a life sentence of hard labor in a gulag for humiliating his home country. Kazakhstan’s Premier (Dani Popescu) tells him he can go free if he successfully completes a mission to deliver Johnny the Monkey, the country’s Minister of Culture, to Donald Trump as a gift, in hopes that Trump will use his pull and celebrity to reclaim respect to the nation.
Of course, zany people and circumstances ensue and inevitably disrupt Borat’s plans, not least Borat learning he has a “non-son,” which is to say he has a daughter. Her name is Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who’s 15 and has been brought up to believe her only purpose as a female is to keep quiet and please men. Nevertheless, she’s curious about the world and she stows away to America to join her father.
Without giving too much away, Tutar takes the place of Johnny the Monkey and becomes the intended gift to Mike Pence and then to Rudy Giuliani. As Borat and Tutar embark on a cross-country tour to get her ready, they encounter a range of real-life people, places and events that serve as the punchlines for the movie’s jokes, including CPAC; an anti-abortion pastor; fathers and daughters at a debutante ball; an Instagram influencer; a plastic surgery clinic; QAnon conspiracy theorists; and one or two of the political figures I mentioned above.
Because we’ve already been down this road with the first “Borat” and can essentially anticipate what will happen given its familiar structure, the setups and reactions from people don’t have the same punchy impact they once did. Most of the time we watch “Moviefilm” knowing what it’s going to do ahead of time and then simply watch it do it. All the while, in the back of our minds, we’re hoping it will catch us off guard and try something different.
It never really does though, and I know the point of a movie like this isn’t to tell an original or involving story, but I still wish Woliner and Baron Cohen had found a way to make the plot and gags less predictable. There were times when they even seemed desperate to get a visceral reaction out of us. I’m not saying the site of someone stuffing their face with a cupcake and accidentally eating a plastic baby, or bloody genitals, or a half-naked man wearing a strap-on dildo can’t be funny when done right and unexpectedly, but here they’re mostly gross and, frankly, stupid.
Because “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” strives to be a comedy first, and its humor falls mostly flat, I can’t justifiably recommend it overall. However, its political and humanitarian messages are worth hearing. As silly and vulgar as the movie is on the outside, it sincerely encourages us to remember it’s never too late to seek, learn or speak the truth; to make an effort to really listen to someone else’s perspective; and to not pass judgment on anyone or anything before we have the requisite knowledge. I’m wise enough to know the movie isn’t likely to change anyone’s vote, at least not right away, but I’m hopeful it will resonate with people and remind us to speak kindly and, if need be, assertively to one another in person so that we can more effectively help one another out of any absurd time we may find ourselves in, maybe even bring the absurdity levels down a bit . I think we’d all be better off if we could once again consider the things Borat says and does to be shocking and outrageous instead of normal and then have the courage to call him out on it.