Who knew we needed Borat as much as we apparently did? Well, welcome once again to 2020, a year that continues to surprise and anger in so many multitudinous ways that counting the reasons why has long since stopped being either fun or funny. But there’s probably no better time to laugh at how ridiculous everything is than now, and for that we can “thank” Sacha Baron Cohen.
Cohen has resurrected Borat, the eternally optimistic if forever clumsy and un-PC Kazakh reporter, for another meld of acting and “reality” with the rather ungainly titled sequel “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (or, for brevity’s sake, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” or “Borat 2”). When the first film came out in 2006, Cohen’s schtick was little known outside of his native England. But come to America he did, as both an actor in films such as “Talladega Nights,” but it was “Borat” that put him on the map here. By pretending to be a curious, if incredibly sexist and anti-Semitic outsider, Cohen, who is Jewish in real life, peeled back layers of American puritanism, while squeezing as much laughter as possible from gags such as the infamous naked fight with his fellow “jouranlist.”
As humorous as the original film was at times (though I wasn’t much of a fan), the stakes in those oh-so-innocent early 2000s seem pleasant and breezy compared to our moment, when not only is the upcoming presidential election sure to be disputed no matter the outcome, but a global virus continues to rage, protests the world over have broken out over police brutality, and both democracy and, indeed, such heretofore safely seeming concrete concepts as “civilization” seem to be things we can no longer count on.
Thus, there has never been a better time for Borat to return. And boy howdy, in an era when we have lost our ability to be shocked anymore, Cohen goes for broke.
As “Subsequent Moviefilm” opens, Borat’s fortunes hinge on returning once again to America, but this time in tow is his daughter Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev, played by the incomparably talented newcomer Irina Novak, who holds her own in every scene with Cohen—and steals more than a few.
Anyone recalling Borat’s last sojourn to the Land of the Free will get a smile—however painful—at Cohen’s renewed antics. Some of his foils are “in” on the joke; others are not. The not-ers include a millennial “influencer” who coaches Sandra that in order to be a good wife in America, she should keep her mouth shut and be docile because that’s what men “like.” Then there is the poor preacher at a women’s health center who doesn’t understand that when Borat says his daughter “has baby in stomach,” he’s in fact referring to a plastic cupcake topper she’d earlier swallowed. The gag builds upon itself, with Borat and Sandra innocently talking about a plastic toy baby that “daddy put there,” and the patient, put-upon minister saying that even such “incest” is forgivable in the eyes of God.
These are easy targets, and “Subsequent” has more than a few. Because Cohen and crew filmed partly in Texas, how many times is it really funny to mock certain residents of the Lone Star State, with their unique twang and fondness for cowboy attire, as backwards or narrow-minded?
Where the shock truly comes alive is when Borat and Sandra manage to crash in on such 2020 phenonema as the largely white, anti-covid shutdown rallies (many of whose attendants wear Nazi and Confederate gear). Borat shows up at one as a phony cowboy country star, where he sings an anti-Obama song that he wrote in a previous scene with the help of two rednecks. In fact the two bearded fellows are among the film’s prize: Not only do they take in this foreigner with a funny accent who is clearly not from anywhere around here, but you can’t help but like them even as they say that Democrats are “worse” than covid-19. They are not putting on airs; nor do they seem to get the joke that, while being decent citizens and hosting an outsider, they are cheering on a president who gleefully puts down foreigners at every opportunity (if these two men are actors, which I sincerely hope they aren’t, they deserve all kinds of awards.)
But because this is Cohen, “Borat 2” must have his requisite ambush gags, and the new film has two big ones. First he shows up at CPAC, the annual conservative confab, in the white hood and robes of a KKK member, which draws far fewer frowns from the attendees than we’d like to hope it might. This builds to a moment of performance art humor during a speech by Vice President Mike Pence that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.
The film’s other crowning gag is when Borat and Sandra manage to punk Rudy Giuliani into believing that Sandra is a legitimate news reporter. Discretion dictates that I say nothing more of what ensues, but the way the “interview” and its aftermath go down will do absolutely nothing to give the former New York mayor and Trump apologist an image makeover—and could induce vomiting among the more squeamish given that it’s more horrifying than anything that typically emanates from the scary screens of October.
All of Cohen’s trap humor is as on point as ever, but what really makes “Borat 2” shine is the repartee and banter between Cohen and the newcomer Novak, a Bulgarian actress who has an absolutely bright future ahead of her. Remember, some of what you see is scripted, and some is not. Cohen’s skills at improvisation are legion, and Novak meets him in every scene they share. She backs down from nothing, is fearless to the point of absurdity and matches Cohen’s ability to make us, even though we know she’s playing a character, question where the acting ends and the “performance” begins. It’s a tremendous feat.
How “Borat 2” lands at a time when none of us can go to the movie theaters, and we’re in perhaps the most anxious time of our lives, will largely depend on how much we can laugh at the surreality of 2020, including at the irony that we are stuck at home watching first-run flicks on our couches rather than together at the multiplex. Yes, Cohen’s and Novak’s antics put not only themselves but others around them at risk (remember, much of what you see was filmed during the pandemic, and to maintain their acts, they don’t wear masks), but in 2020, what is “risk” anymore when even going to the grocery store is potentially lethal to our most vulnerable?
I suspect that when the history of this strange, tiresome but endlessly fascinating year is written, “Subsequent Moviefilm” will be looked back at as the movie that truly summed up 2020. It’s absurd and stupid and knowing while pretending to be innocently cynical, which is about all that can be said of where we are with two months and change left to go before the ball will descend on an empty Times Square. When truth has become stranger than fiction, almost nothing is funny anymore and the headlines make even the Onion writers blush, where else can we go?
Thankfully, we have Borat to show us.
Available for streaming on Amazon starting Friday. Oct. 23.
Rated R. Contains foul words in many languages, penis gags, a heavy hygiene fail at a debutante ball and the smug smiles of Mike Pence and Rudy Giuliani.