Few could have anticipated the eruption of bigotry and hatred surfacing across America in 2020, but Sacha Baron Cohen called it out long ago. The British comedian-turned-performance artist has never been better at identifying the worst tendencies of the modern world than under the guise of Borat, the mustachioed Kazakh journalist he’s been playing since “Da Ali G Show” premiered 20 years ago, and his latest zany romp proves he’s only grown more confident in the approach with time.
In his 2006 mockumentary, Borat went to America and provoked rampant anti-Semitism across the land. It was hard to imagine how a sequel could go much further. But then Trump happened, white nationalism scored a national platform, internet conspiracy theories went mainstream, and the pandemic only further exacerbated the festering, stupid rage of a society on the brink. The time was ripe for more Borat, and Baron Cohen has met his moment, with a wily, dangerous satire masquerading as a lowbrow comedy (even though it works fine as one of those, too). Cobbled together in the midst of the pandemic and rushed out ahead of the presidential election, the new “Borat” plays like a prankish wakeup call to the lunacy he’s been pointing towards for ages. At a time when satire often feels too soft, this brilliant, vulgar plea for a better world cuts deep.
The headline item belongs to a seedy bit involving Rudy Giuliani in a hotel room, accepting the advances of a flirty teenage journalist, a stunt that would work wonders on its own. By the time it arrives, however, the movie has careened through wry indictments of anti-Semitism and pro-life ideologues, called out rampant sexism, and exposed the precise threat of online disinformation. In a remarkable bit of quasi-documentary storytelling, the coronavirus creeps into the plot and overtakes it, providing a framework for Baron Cohen to make Borat more relevant than ever. Though directed by Jason Woliner (whose work on the Adult Swim production “Brett Gelman’s Dinner in America” feels like an audition for this high-profile gig) and credited to seven different writers, it’s purest distillation of Baron Cohen’s confrontational appeal to date.
Yet it’s also a welcome showcase for Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s daughter and carries her own prank scenes with such anarchic glee it’s almost as if Baron Cohen invented her in a lab. Bakalova holds her own in the movie’s definitive confrontation with America’s ex-mayor-turned-presidential-goon, and Giuliani’s the punchline to 80-odd minutes of a black-comic horror show: Empower these impulses across your country, and here’s what you get — a maniacal supervillain in the flesh, or at least someone who aspires to it at all costs.
But the latest “Borat” adventure doesn’t merely pile up the vignettes. Once again, Baron Cohen has positioned the character in the context of a narrative journey that stabilizes the stunts. The movie’s official title, which changes several times over the course of Borat’s travels, explains the gist of it: “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Sometimes, Pence creeps into that title; later, it’s Giuliani. But the bottom line is that Borat has been forced to return to America to mess with the people in charge, and he gets pretty close to doing just that.
Borat doesn’t understand the assignment he’s given by his dictatorial government early in the movie, but he’s happy to take it on. As he reveals in a prologue from his mock village, the success of the previous installment embarrassed his country so much that he was tossed into a gulag for life (“My life is nice….naaahhht“). Yanked from prison to delivery a monkey envoy to Mike Pence — long story — Borat arrives in Texas with the monkey in a crate, only to find that his 15-year-old daughter Tutar is inside instead.
As Bakalova bursts from the box caked in dirt, Tutar begins a remarkable transition from a crass cartoon who embodies the misogyny of her made-up society to recognize her own individuality, albeit in something of a bizarro fashion. Obsessing over an invented Kazakh animated cartoon that imagines Melania Trump’s life in a literal gilded cage, Tutar’s stuck with spending her nights in the metallic one her father keeps her in. But Borat, who faces execution if he doesn’t fulfill his mission, spots an opportunity in handing over Tutar as a prize for Pence.
That’s all the framework the movie needs to send the father-daughter duo careening across the country, from the Deep South all the way to New York City, as their chemistry grows more complex through the revelations from people they mess with along the way. As with his Showtime series “Who Is America?,” Baron Cohen’s celebrity means that he can’t simply walk around as his most familiar faces for the stunts to work. Thankfully, that hasn’t slowed him down. After working his fame into the plot — Borat’s beloved in America, so he needs a disguise — the movie speeds ahead. Bakalova scores some of the movie’s most outrageous moments, from a grotesque period gag at a debutante ball to a monologue about masturbation delivered to a terrified meeting of older women Republicans. Their shock is our subversive delight: the opportunity to see a restrictive world forced to confront its boundaries, and unable to process their existence.
Still, Baron Cohen’s penchant for boxing gullible people into morally questionable corners sits at the center of the movie, and it hasn’t grown stale in the least. From the baker who writes “Jews Will Not Replace Us” on a chocolate cake at Borat’s request, to the stylist who provides a straightforward to response to the question, “What color is best for racist family?,” Baron Cohen excels at showing the ease with which horrific sentiments can drift through everyday life unchecked. Sometimes, though, it’s appealing enough just to watch him elicit the rage and confusion of his main targets. When he interrupts “vice pussy hound” Mike Pence at a CPAC conference dressed as Donald Trump (“Mike Penis!” he cries), the veep’s baffled response in the midst of a shrieking crowd is funny enough — and oh-so-cathartic.
Of course, there’s nothing funny about the real-life situation Borat finds himself in. The movie begins months before COVID-19 overtook the United States, and culminates in the midst of it, with no obvious end in sight. By the time Borat finds a pair of middle-aged conspiracy theorists named Jerry Hollemann and Jim Russell, stays in their house, and recruits them as his partners in crime, America’s lockdown has lead to a kind of hysteria readymade for Baron Cohen’s exploitation.
Months before the movie’s completion, it was reported that Baron Cohen showed up at a white supremacist “March for Our Rights” rally outside Washington disguised as a hillbilly musician, but the stunt worked out even better than those stories implied. While nothing can top the iconic stunt of “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” Baron Cohen comes close with a call-and-response performance that finds the deranged crowd grinning along to Borat’s violent pronouncements (“Obama/What you gonna do/Inject him with the Wuhan flu!”) and eventually singing along.
The sequence blends hilarity with shock, a combo made all the more impressive for the way it has been assembled to forward the plot in tandem with making the stunt work. Baron Cohen apparently lived with his clueless pals for five days in character; as a result, Borat’s giddy pals Jerry and Jim seem to actually think they’ve befriended a goofball foreigner and want to help him with his ridiculous mission. However these conditions actually took shape when the cameras weren’t rolling, they result in a surreal illustration of complicity under outrageous conditions that define the Trump base at its worst.
However, Baron Cohen’s greatest fixation remains anti-Semitism, and he finds his way back to that target through a distinctly 2020 lens. While Borat’s sweet encounter with the late Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans (who was reportedly clued into the joke, though her family disputes this) provides a nice bookend to the character arc, the movie gets real whenever it calls out Facebook and other platforms for bolstering disinformation. As callbacks to Baron Cohen’s 2019 ADL address on the “ideological imperialism” of social media, these moments do a better job of illustrating the danger at hand than even the most eloquent speech. It’s commendable when Baron Cohen calls out this problem, as he did in a recent editorial for Time, but he’s even better at reflecting it in his art.
If the “Borat” conceit has a drawback this time around, it goes back to the same fallacy that has followed it since Baron Cohen dreamed it up years ago. Kazahkstan is a real place, quite different from the caricature Baron Cohen portrays, and the result of all that risks contributing to the very stereotypes that this high-minded satire aims to take on. Then again, if you don’t know already know the Kazahkstan of Planet Borat differs from the real deal, that itself bolsters his intentions. Anyone not smart enough to get the point only serves to prove it. Borat is the mirror to American ignorance.
All of which means that once Giuliani shows up, spouting his moronic propaganda for Trump’s COVID response before taking the seductive advances of his cartoonish interrogator at face value, the whole equation fits together. When a country allows this much filth to accumulate, it should come as no surprise that some of the most influential people in its confines are literal human trash.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” ends with a plea to vote, against the backdrop of the most damning visual to come out of this horrible year. It’s enlightening to watch Baron Cohen come closer than he has before to breaking the fourth wall and pointing out his intentions in the material itself. Fourteen years after his last romp, Borat isn’t exactly woke, but his time has come: This searing brand of humor has never felt more essential. Blending activism with entertainment, Baron Cohen’s best movie to date gives us new reasons to be afraid of the world, but also permission to laugh at it.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (or whatever it’s called by the end) will be available to stream Friday, October 23 on Amazon Prime Video.