Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
Time is fleeting and nostalgia, though strong and even resilient, does fade with time. I’ve often found myself playing a particular song and remembering the way it made me feel at a specific time in my life. Replaying it again, I get an inkling of what that first time felt like, yet there’s something missing. My natural, spontaneous response will always be the purest manifestation of my emotions and any subsequent feelings will always be pale imitations unless Charlie Kaufman finally develops that Eternal Sunshine mind-erasing technique. Re-capturing ‘lightning in a bottle’ is a feat some filmmakers and performers have been able to accomplish, Spielberg arguably being the master due to his cultural significance, but how do you reclaim a moment which was initially based entirely on a lie? How do you regain that spontaneity when everyone’s already in on the joke?
I met “my wiiiiiifffe!”, as Oscar-nominee Sacha Baron Cohen’s world-famous and equally infamous Kazakh journalist Borat Margaret Sagdiyev (sometimes referred to as Bolock) would say, on November 5, 2006. This was only two days after the release of Cohen’s Larry Charles-directed Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and we spent the evening falling over each other in laughter (and a couple dates later, lust. I am a gentleman, after all) while watching the insanity of this blisteringly funny and insightful mockumentary. It was a blast of comedic energy and it became a worldwide phenomenon. A year later, I was still quoting it and even snuck some dialogue into a production of William Finn’s A New Brain because I have no shame.
Cohen’s comical dissection of racism, classism, politics, and religion struck a chord and his inappropriate, culturally-ignorant foreigner provided the perfect opportunity to expose many individuals as the garbage people they were and probably still are. The only drawback to the film’s success is that Cohen (and the character) became too popular. Too well-known. This was essentially a one-time-only situation where he could fool those he mocked and secretly ridiculed. His wonderful previous work on Da Ali G Show (2000-2004) and a few offshoots allowed his “is grey” suit-wearing, hawk-following reporter to infiltrate these dens of hypocritical racists, sexists, and religious nutjobs relatively unscathed and undetected. For the timely and equally satirical follow-up, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020), directed by prolific TV comedy director Jason Woliner (Funny or Die, Human Giant, a frequent Patton Oswalt collaborator), he’d have to contend with the simple fact that most folks aren’t going to be fooled again. Fortunately, the filmmakers know this and as Borat himself would say about his mortal enemy, the Jews: “these rats are clever.” Also, it’s still easy to fool people when they happen to be closed-minded morons.
The most striking aspect of the Borat sequel is its resemblance to an actual movie. The handheld, occasionally hidden camera technique is still there, but gone is the beautifully organic randomness of his journey. Is the Borat sequel funny? Very much so, but it’s a different kind of funny. While the original only rarely indulged in obvious jokes (the children running after the ice cream truck and the bear scaring them), Subsequent Moviefilm goes for a more 50/50 approach; mixing real people in real situations along with comedic moments that have been manufactured and obviously staged. Most of them still land, but the naturalism of the comedy is gone. The film exists in a world where the first Borat film did happen and we’re treated to a great deal of Cohen stock footage, in his Borat get-up, at premieres and interviews. It’s very similar to when Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest recorded an audio commentary in character and essentially reacted to This is Spinal Tap (1984) as if it was a real documentary. As we soon find out, Borat can’t walk the streets without being recognized and it’s fascinating, though a little disappointing, that there’s no way he can actually pull off the same trick twice. This is a totally understandable development and one can’t fault Cohen and his original crew for making what is, in my opinion, one of the funniest films of all time, but it does handicap them as they explore an America that’s regressed even further into Idiocracy territory under the brutal dictatorship-like reign of Hitler-esque President Donald Trump.
The biggest surprise is the presence of Borat’s daughter, Tutar, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, in a star-making turn. The original film followed Borat from start-to-finish, but here, there are several stretches where Cohen disappears and the focus shifts to Bakalova’s spunky, wonderfully improper young lady. Gone is the lovably squishy Azamat, whose skin has been re-fashioned into an arm chair covering, and gone is the lovely Luenell, who disappeared after Borat went to a gulag for embarrassing Kazakhstan on an international scale. This is a brilliant example of art-imitating life since the original film did indeed initially anger the Kazakh government, although thanks to the increased level of tourism and money it brought to their economy, the film was ultimately deemed beneficial, if still pretty insulting.
Like the original, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm does have an endgame, but funny as it is, the impossibility of it makes the journey feel somewhat lacking in urgency or intrigue. Borat’s quest to marry Pamela Anderson was seen as a long-shot, but not out of the realm of possibility. The subsequent moment when he actually gets to meet her and capture her in a sack is both hilarious and completely satisfying. Here, his release from the gulag is predicated on Premier Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu)’s belief that gifting movie star and pornographic simian Johnny the Monkey (first mentioned in the SexyDrownWatch segment of the Borat special features DVD) to Trump will repair Kazakhstan’s reputation on an international level. Since Trump in 2006, to me, was just that guy from Home Alone 2, the significance of Borat taking a shit outside of Trump Tower was lost on me. Now, it’s far more pronounced and due to that wonderful moment of open air defecation, it’s deemed far more prudent to gift Johnny to Mike Pence since “The vice premier was known to be such a pussy hound that he could not be left alone in a room with a woman.”
It’s a smart plot device due to the extremely creepy Vice President’s spotlight-avoidance and the many, many rumors about his alleged homosexuality. The original title, which would’ve been fine, very nearly became: Borat: Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premiere Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan. Throwing it out there though, they should’ve just sent Billy Sexcrime. It’s so unlikely Borat will get anywhere near Mike Pence, bearing the sex monkey or otherwise, that it’s impressive that he does at least end up at the 2020 CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference). Supposedly, Cohen had to hide in a bathroom for nearly five hours in order to attempt his ambush. While Pamela Anderson did have security to hinder fanboys from groping her, Cohen had to deal with literal Secret Service agents, so his ability to interact with the elusive and mysterious “mother-loving” Pence is limited to a bit of yelling and his eventual expulsion from the conference. Ditto the eventual appearance of “Sieg Heil” Rudy Giuliani, whose screen persona sadly doesn’t translate into much more than a smarmy old man, even though I’m sure the filmmakers were genuinely hoping for him to make a pass at the newly made-over Tutar.
Nothing can quite match the comedy explosion that was the naked hotel battle between Borat and Azamat in the original. It was, without a doubt, one of the longest sustained sequences of hilarity ever captured on film. It was practically pandemonium in the theatre I saw the film in. It would be cruel to suggest the sequel was intentionally trying to match that scene, but if they were, the closest they come is a fertility dance sequence set at a hoity-toity and very Southern debutante ball, which the filmmakers infiltrated by posing as a “coming-of-age" documentary production.
The bravery of Cohen has never been questioned, but Maria Bakalova’s willingness to go all out in a scene where she yanks up her dress to reveal her blood-stained thighs and mound of pubic hair is jaw-dropping. Another scene in which she infiltrates a conservative women’s group and graphically describes her first orgasm: “And I found out that I wasn’t sucked in and I wasn’t eaten. Womens...this place is amazing. No teeth at all.” There’s a running joke about a guidebook titled “Daughters Owner’s Manual,” which explains what kind of cage Tutar must be housed in as well as the dangers of touching one’s “vagine.” As the book describes, “Her vagine became very angry and bit her hand. Then suck all of her insides where she remains to this day.” All of this is read by an unsuspecting babysitter, played by Jeanise Jones, who was reportedly fooled into believing all of this was real and comes off as a fine, decent human being. The only issue with the book element is that it doesn’t feel organic to the plot. It’s a joke. A good one, absolutely, and it leads to Tutar’s eventual split from Borat after she’s “enlightened” by Jones and the always truthful Facebook, but it still feels forced.
The split occurs when Tutar claims that the Holocaust never happened after reading a Holocaust-denier's Facebook page. This devastates Borat and he decides to commit suicide by entering a synagogue. “Since I did not have money to buy a gun, I went to the nearest synagogue to wait for the next mass shooting.” One tends to forget that although the number of shootings has decreased due to the pandemic, this is still a very darkly comic statement. In one of the strongest and even most touching scenes, he speaks with a pair of Holocaust survivors and is convinced the tragic events did indeed take place. It’s a twisted, character-based moment that’s both horrifying and extremely appropriate for his character. While the woman he speaks to, Judith Dim Evans, passed away sometime later and her family attempted to sue the production, the lawsuit was later withdrawn and Cohen made a very rare break from character to explain to the woman what exactly was going on. It’s comforting to know that Cohen’s purpose has always been to combine laughter and shock to educate, but he remains a decent human being.
Much like Alex Gibney’s actual documentary, The Armstrong Lie, a major event caused the Borat sequel to make a major shift in its focus and narrative. While Gibney’s film went from a biographical take on Lance Armstrong’s journey to a treatise on deception, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm had to deal with the global impact of COVID-19. I haven’t seen a great deal of COVID-related film productions since only so many can be made safely, but it was rather terrifying to watch Cohen interact with rednecks and pandemic-deniers without a mask. Even though most scenes took place outside, it’s still nerve-wracking to say the least. His subsequent hookup with Qanon conspiracy theorists Jerry Holleman and Jim Russell is quite frankly unbelievable. By most accounts, these men are absolutely real and I’d assume they were being paid to essentially allow Borat to live with them during the lock-down.
Cohen states: “The hardest thing I had to do was, I lived in character for five days in this lockdown house," he said. "I was waking up, having breakfast, lunch, dinner, going to sleep as Borat when I lived in a house with these two conspiracy theorists. You can't have a moment out of character.” I have to admit, I thought they were actors, and in some ways, I do think they were playing characters in certain sections. Perhaps not in their lockdown scenes, but in an outdoor concert scene, where Cohen’s team had fortunately hired security since the crowd figured out what was going on and attempted to attack the star, the two men say and do things that feel scripted. It's another moment that makes the film feel less like a mock-documentary and more like an actual movie.
Despite the issues I have with the forced plot-points and situations, much of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is extremely funny. There are plenty of references to the original, including the unfortunate plummet of “exports of potassium and pubis.” Nursultan Tulyakbay returns and has taken all of Borat’s possessions and even his son Huey Lewis, his pride-and-joy, now wishes to be called Jeffrey Epstein. Tutar’s dream of becoming like Melania Trump via watching hysterically Disney-fied cartoons about the First Lady’s marriage to a gross old man and becoming queen of the land is aided by advice from an awful internet influencer. Borat finding a “Stupid Foreign Reporter” costume in a Halloween store is “make glorious.”
Modern technology continues to baffle the foreigner, particularly Facetiming with kindly phone store worker Brian, although it’s not nearly as funny as his inability to use a television in the first film. This lack of tech knowledge does work quite well in a sequence where he faxes back-and-forth with his premier and receives the message, of course read by the unsuspecting desk clerk, that: “Return immediately to die in excruciating pain. You will be tied to two cows who will face Uzbeks with turnips inserted in their assholes. Uzbeks will be enticed away with money and cows will follow to eat turnips, ripping you apart.” A scene in which Tutar accidentally swallows a baby cupcake topping and the two engage in doublespeak with an anti-abortion counselor is on-the-nose, but admittedly very amusing while also shocking due to the counselor’s relatively blasé response to the shocking details of the baby’s conception, which will “hurt my asshole.”
The final twist arrives and... it’s both satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. On the one hand, it’s a movie-based plot twist that once again breaks the illusion the first film so ably established. But, to its credit, the brilliantly-conceived notion that the “gypsy tears” Borat was injected with in the beginning of the film was really COVID-19 and that he’s been unknowingly spreading the virus throughout the world as “patient zero” is flat-out funny. It’s dark and a bit cheap, but it mostly works. In the finale, we find a (slightly) more enlightened Kazakhstan indulging in the “Running of the American” featuring Trump supporters, a ‘Karen,’ and Dr. Anthony Fauci attempting to cure people only to be gunned down with a Wal-Mart-purchased AR-15. It's an inspired conclusion.
It’s not a question of diminishing returns or whether Borat Subsequent Moviefilm would have made as large of a cultural impact had it been released in a so-called “normal world.” What’s more important to take away from the film is how little has changed and how important it is that there are people like Cohen and his collaborators who are willing to risk physical harm in order to expose how truly awful roughly half the population of America truly is. As always, humor, black though it may be, will almost always succeed where bland, boring, fact-based info-tainment fails, important though it may be. It works because if one is told they’re being educated, there’s resistance, but if one goes into a film or program and ends up both entertained and informed, the proverbial “medicine” goes down much more smoothly.