Rating: 4 out of 5
No one asked for another Borat movie. Sacha Baron Cohen made himself quite clear when the original was released back in 2006. He revealed America for what it was, pig-headed, brutish, self-obsessed but ultimately worth saving in spite of itself. The original has grown more poignant with age; the bloodlust of the Americans at the rodeo, the soon to be Trumpites who speak in proto-incel psychobabble as they drink with Borat, and the southern dinner party where all is tolerated until a black prostitute arrives, an innocuous event comparatively to his previous antics but the white southerners poise and politeness withered the moment they were confronted with their own prejudice. Borat was equally funny as it was insightful, perhaps it was the deluge of “very niiiice” and “my wiiife” references that have been reiterated throughout the years but it’s easy to forget just how simultaneously enlightening, courageous and downright hilarious Cohen can be when operating at peak capacity. Borat Subsequent Movie Film finds him more than a decade later in a very different world, one radically altered by four years of a Trump presidency. With Borat’s own baggage and racism as a character, this is a daring maneuver on Cohen’s behalf, who spares no expense in bringing shame upon himself and large swaths of the American public, but in the most surprising move of all, he doesn’t ignore the glowing kernel of humanity and optimism that persists at the heart of the American experience, reaffirming a sense of togetherness all too rare through something beautiful, namely, laughter.
Borat Subsequent Movie Film fits all its references to the previous entry within the first five minutes, declaring at once its status as sequel and dispensing with any expectations around its substance. This allows Cohen more space to play, he somehow escapes being Borat by, well, being Borat. He returns to America an icon, running from fans who recognize him. Cohen, being a genius, prepared for just about any comedic wrinkle, dons disguises atop the Borat character, so Cohen-dressed-as-Borat-dressed-as-someone-else. The concept alone is chuckle worthy and Cohen draws incredible mileage out of the bit resulting in one of the movie’s penultimate scenes at a synagogue where Borat is confronted by two elderly Jewish women who assault him with love, kindness and understanding in spite of his blatant prejudice and intent to hurt. There is a resilience and spiritual perseverance that replaces the scathing nature of the first film with a surprising emotion: affection.
This movie has a great big beating heart, and that is largely as a result of the introduction of “Borat’s fifteen year-old daughter” Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who begins the film chained in a barn. She accompanies Borat in his journey to deliver a gift to “Premiere” Trump, becoming the gift herself. Her arc involves the input of a bystander, seemingly ignorant to Bakalova and Cohen’s shenanigans, whose earnestness is disarming, she advocates for Tutar’s liberation as a woman and free-spirit that forces Borat (in some degree, this is still Cohen we are dealing with) to reckon with his misogyny, and to Cohen’s credit, this is never accomplished by moral preaching but rather through comedy and genuine interaction. Cohen has perhaps not gotten softer with age, just better at listening, and to Borat Subsequent Movie Film’s credit, he (as Borat) is never overwhelming the narrative with antics or shock-value, even if the finale is Giulliani preparing for a blow-job from Borat’s daughter, this moment too, strikes with an odd kind of maturity in it’s irreverence. Cohen was more concerned about Bakalova’s safety and comfortability as a performer than he was about the “kill-job”, or else he just would have let Rudy Giulliani whip his dick out, that would be that, and the man’s career would be over, but instead Cohen’s respect for his cast and crew run so deep that, whether acted or not, we feel empathy and connection between growing Borat and Tutar, it’s just detectable through comedy which makes the feeling especially potent.
This is why the movie succeeds on such high marks, it’s this feeling of refining the joke of the original Borat into a point where it’s not so mean-spirited anymore, perhaps in reaction to the hatred and hostility in America, Cohen adopts a more radical position, one of humility and grace. Whereas the original Borat sought to derive American ignorance from launching prejudice’s back at the people holding them to reveal a gnarled core, Subsequent Movie Film finds Borat in a position where that core has become exposed and has rotted even further, this time with none of the illusions it had about itself in 06’, the frat kids from that bus chose the last president and likely voted for four more years with that same one, their ideologies no longer exist on the fringe but have been adopted by incels and “bros” alike, and much like the original film they are only condemned insofar as Borat’s bad behavior is, Cohen never dishes out what he doesn’t get in return. Which is why the feeling I get from Sacha, watching this film, is a Nietzschean love of the enemy, Cohen finds no one in the world funnier than the fools he lampoons but his personality disables him from interacting with them. Which is why the costume piece and “characters” he plays are more profound than he’s likely ever been given credit for. Here is a man who brings people together in disguise, when he is amidst political “enemies” he is a wolf in sheep’s clothes and when he is arguing against his “allies” he presents the inverse and the ultimate feeling that it leaves me with is one of adoration and respect. Not something I ever thought I’d be accusing Cohen of but his gaze betrays him, I suspect, he loves these people.
So my reading is optimistic. Do I wish to see what I want? Perhaps. There are some troubling moments, however, I believe Subsequent Movie Film makes humor of humorlessness which in an era where jokes and comedy have never been more in danger, under threat by pain and destitution from institutions and ideology, it’s enlightening to have someone who can make laughs where people refuse to find any. I suspect many will not watch this film either because they believe it’s loaded politically one way or the other: leftists might criticize it for not being “PC”, holding it accountable for the content and legacy of the first film (though it did more to show them Americans about themselves than many other movies of the era, particularly comedies) in addition to the fact that though we cannot strip a work of it’s politics or its context many of us now would like to, and keep in mind this film came out before the election, so the liberal pathological commitment to destroying Trump-ism and it’s depressed, catatonic state therein (one in which laughter is seldom) might wish only to see messages of empowerment, which we are taught, right now, look one way, that is to say manipulative, opportunistic morals and ideological content compromised in capital investment. Those on the right of the US will find Cohen’s remarks largely offensive to them because they, frankly, found things distinctly not funny for a long while now, if the Tea Party and Trump-era were never able to recognize their own hilarity in a way I suspect modern liberals are slowly getting a feeling for their own, then lord help them. I know many liberals are frustrated and annoyed right now how “often” comedians are poking fun at PC culture, but I see it as nothing but positive, our ability to laugh at our own ideology is indicative of our freedom from it. We are more than our ideology. And Subsequent Movie Film knows this proudly, it gazes at the flimsy borders and empty determinations of our prejudices and has the bravery to laugh with us about them.
P.S. A Note on “PC” Political Content in Films
My father recently explicated some of his issues with “politically correct” content in films. I have no particular quarrels with it, the ideological value therein is no more or less than that of any era before us, it’s just that in the wake of post-modernism, we give more credence to our interpretations of meta-narratives than we ever have. Many our useful. Marxism is a way of seeing the events of history, as is intersectionality, as is christianity, they are all vehicles by which we access and make intelligible our world in its absurdity. So my issue with people advocating for “more” or “less” politically correct content in films is that we are going to have these conversations around reevaluation and critique twenty years from now, ideology is cooked into films no matter what, especially when it sells. And the criticism I would level at my father’s article is that many youths from my generation have a similar list as he, just about old entertainment rather than new stuff. It is this polarization which worries me. Our inability to reconcile or even attempt to understand the differences in art between generations is simply cruel. For every movie my dad deems “PC” this generation there are a myriad of titles from his that my generation would say are “not-PC”, I think it’s absolutely bizarre that this would stop us from enjoying the entertainment from that era or him from enjoying it in this one. That he would call new films “crap” because to him it felt “obligatory to feature lesbians” or to my generation old films appear despicable because they stem from a racist, misogynist, imperialist culture, however, the cognitive distortion is apparent in both, it’s actually pathological to see the world in this given way, it requires forcing ideology to the forefront of any document. So my question is can we escape? Can we destabilize the sanctity of our ideology to hear each other better or is this distance a positive process? Perhaps the solutions of PC culture are flawed because it’s our undergoing positive change, in a Hegelian sense, a historical necessity that is doomed to dialectic, never understanding it’s opposite but producing, through it’s mutual correspondence and difference, a yet unwritten future.