I’ve never been a spoiler baby. The first scene of The Sopranos I’ve ever seen was the last one and I believe it’s the ideal way to consume the series. I bring this up because, as the result of some embargo breaking, the climax of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was spoiled today. It wasn’t spoiled for me — I watched a screener yesterday — but for anyone who hadn’t seen it yet, which is most people since it doesn’t come out until Friday. Spoil is the appropriate word here — it’s a reveal that sours the film, makes it leave a worse taste in one’s mouth. Considering the nature of the spoiler — which involves a polarizing political figure with considerable access to the president, arriving weeks before an election — this was inevitable. But it doesn’t make it less of a bummer.
If you have somehow gotten to this article without knowing what I’m referring to, please stop and just try to avoid the internet until you can see Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Your experience will be better for it. But, for the rest of you, here is how The Guardian, the publication that first “reported” this story, described what happened: “The reputation of Rudy Giuliani could be set for a further blow with the release of highly embarrassing footage in Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to Borat. In the film, released on Friday, the former New York mayor and current personal attorney to Donald Trump is seen reaching into his trousers and apparently touching his genitals while reclining on a bed in the presence of the actor playing Borat’s daughter, who is posing as a TV journalist.” Does this happen? Essentially. An argument could be made (one that Giuliani has made) that maybe he was not acting in a sexual manner, but just fixing his deeply tucked in shirt. Or maybe someone will say he was essentially entrapped, as the actress playing baby Borat was seemingly trying to seduce him. That is a separate conversation, but the fact that it is what the entire conversation has turned into is exactly the issue.
Cohen works famously hard on his movies, hiring a ridiculous number of writers with different styles. What is so impressive about the first Borat is how it is uses so many comedic forms and tones — it can be slapstick, satirical, sentimental. Watching Borat 2 was no different. There is just so much comedy in it, which is refreshing in a time where so few comedy movies are being made and so much comedic television deprioritizes jokes. The movie builds to the Giuliani moment, using it for both dramatic (both Borat movies have a “Golden Fleece” structure, to you Save the Cat–heads, meaning they’re quests to acquire a specific goal) and comedic tension. Borat is stupid. He is so stupid that he brings out the genuine sweetness of good people and the genuine bigotry of people who like to act like good people. But this stupidity doesn’t feel slight because it’s building to something. Front-loading the knowledge of what happens with Giuliani, has the opposite effect, essentially making the stupid moments feel more so — as if they are filler until we get to the real movie.
My larger concern is how all of this depreciates comedy generally. To laud Cohen for this Giuliani moment, without mentioning the humor of it, only further props up what I find to be a frustrating value system. Over and over, the media focuses on what comedy says or does — whether it’s for good or for ill — and not how. I’ve seen this only get worse since Trump got elected. My theory is that culture journalists feel insecure about the fact that they are not real journalists, so they prop up whatever politically relevant art they can find. (Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think it is.) I’m literally sitting here, saddened, by the idea of Borat being reduced to “that Rudy Giuliani” movie because, if anything, that seems to suggest that Giuliani in his villainy is more interesting and important than the work of one of our great comedians.
Comedy is a heavily feedback-driven art form, and this response arguably sends the wrong message to Cohen about what’s interesting about his comedy. I did not like Cohen’s Showtime series Who Is America? as much as any of his other work. I found it dreadfully self-important. It’s not as if Cohen drank his own Kool-Aid, but as if he drank the recipe for an upscale version of his Kool-Aid he read about in the New York Times. Foregrounded in that show was the politicians he got and how bad he got them, which likely contributed to the relative flimsiness of the various characters he plays, none of which are as finely drawn as Borat. What is exciting, for me, about Cohen is the feeling that at any given moment, you’re not sure if he is going to do something silly for silliness’ sake or as a clever ploy to lull someone into revealing their true self. It’s just less interesting to reduce the film to a variety of attempts to “get” people.
I’m not naive. When I first watched Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, I couldn’t imagine a journalistic institution that wouldn’t report on the Guiliani moment. Cohen’s a smart guy (he went to one of those schools), so I’m sure he knew this would happen, too. As he once said on an episode of WTF, he is addicted to the rush of a massive stunt. But the irony is, taking the Giuliani moment out of context further contributes to the same news cycle — one that thrives off hyperbole, confusion, and misinformation — that the film subtly critiques. Part of the reason Guiliani likely sat down for an interview in the first place is because of how easy it was for baby Borat to establish herself as a journalist for one of those fringe right-wing websites that this administration has embraced.
But this is not another obituary for context in a post-modern age. This is an obituary for the most enjoyable way one could have seen Borat 2.