Fourteen years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen slid the cathartic comic dagger of Borat into the soft tissue where American civility met American bigotry. His marks were often passive, acquiescent, polite, even when they had their suspicions … but then, their guards lowered and their ids unleashed in the presence of this dim-witted foreign journalist with his monstrously medieval beliefs, they hanged themselves with their own horrific words and actions. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan landed like a cinematic neutron bomb back in 2006, even launching a series of lawsuits from some of its unsuspecting, humiliated subjects. That film still holds up, only today it plays like both a time capsule and an unheeded warning about just how fucked up we truly were. So, now that we’ve fully become a nation of busybodies who outright despise each other, is there any room left for a Borat sequel?
Yes and no. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan offers its share of shameless stunts and at least one climactic earthshaking self-immolation from a major political figure (I won’t spoil it here, even though you’ll be hearing about it soon enough), but it also reveals the limitations of Baron Cohen’s shtick. For starters, people recognize his character now. When Borat, having been released from a gulag by Kazakh strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) and sent to America on a mission to give Vice-President Mike Pence a pet monkey, first arrives in Texas, people chase him down the street and ask for his autograph. As a result, much of the film features Baron Cohen as Borat in disguise as other people — usually, some variation on a lumbering, bearded American rube with a Prince Valiant haircut, which is somehow both on point and not quite as funny as Borat himself.
Secondly, this Borat has an actual story, with actual character arcs and actual emotional turning points and whatnot. The monkey never arrives in the U.S. because it is eaten by Borat’s 15-year-old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who has stowed away in the same shipping container as the creature. So Borat decides to gift his daughter to Pence, America’s “Vice Pussy Grabber.” This news makes Tutar much excite: Having grown up watching Cinderella-style animated fairy tales of the Donald-Melania romance, she has dreams of marrying a rich old American politician and being kept in a nice cage just like Queen Melania. And yes, they do go to a farm supply store to buy a cage for her. And yes, the owner does high-five Borat about all the Mexicans Donald Trump can fit in one cage. And yes, Borat does look at some propane tanks and asks the owner, “How many gypsies can I finish with one canister?” And yes, the owner does reply, “How many you got in the van?”
This is the Borat shuffle, and it still works in a country where everything is transactional and the customer is always right. Borat and Tutar go into a bakery and ask for a cake with the words “Jews will not replace us” on it — no problem. A plastic surgeon, prompted only briefly by Borat, goes into a long analysis of what a Jewish nose looks like. A tanning-salon attendant gamely answers the question of what spray-tan color is best “for a racist family.” A dress-store owner chuckles when Borat asks for “the ‘No Means Yes’ section.”
Amid all the antics involving real-life people, however, the film finds a surprising amount of room to explore the Borat-Tutar relationship. That, of course, allows Borat to grow, as his daughter discovers that women can in fact drive cars and read books and drink out of things that aren’t doggy bowls. This would be a deadly narrative choice — it’s a mockumentary designed to get real people to reveal themselves as ignorant dolts, who cares about two actual performers play-acting against each other as ignorant dolts? — were it not for Bakalova’s voracious energy and immersion in the part. Especially given the wink-wink, larger-than-life self-awareness of Baron Cohen’s performance (which is why it’s still incredible that anyone takes Borat seriously), Bakalova’s total commitment to the bit sometimes lulls us into thinking of Tutar as a real person caught in one of the comedian’s ridiculous ruses. In fact, her performance goes even further: She makes the film’s most absurd moments work dramatically, bringing real emotional gravity to the role of a young woman learning that her vagine will not in fact suck her in and kill her if she dares touch it. As a result, the Borat-Tutar dynamic has real tenderness. (People have noted Shakespeare likely wrote King Lear during a long-ago plague. It now appears that Sacha Baron Cohen has created his own insane twist on Lear during this current pandemic.)
There is plenty of political outrage here, too, if that’s what you’re looking for — and let’s face it, it is. A brief stop at a CPAC convention (filmed in late February) lets us glimpse Mike Pence just long enough to hear him smugly puff his chest about how the U.S. only has 15 coronavirus cases. A visit to a crisis pregnancy center demonstrates the extent to which they’ll go (and the actual crimes they’ll overlook) to try and convince women not to have abortions. In one of the movie’s most remarkable sequences, Borat shacks up for a few days with a couple of right-wing conspiracy nuts who, in between explaining to him what QAnon is, describe how the Democrats and the Clintons created the coronavirus. All that outrage is offset by some humanity, too: When Borat visits a synagogue, dressed in a truly bizarre “Jew” costume (hook nose, long claws, black tights, money bags), a kind elderly woman immediately engages him. It’s a weirdly heartwarming scene, until you realize that she probably knows how to defuse the situation because she’s been here before. Sure enough, she turns out to be a Holocaust survivor.
Borat 2 may not hit quite as many shocking comic highs as the first Borat, but it probably coheres more as a film — ironic, given that it appears to have been written, produced, and edited in record time, during a global crisis — and it also manages to walk a fine line between offense and revelation. There’s been a lot of talk over the past few years about whether a movie like the original Borat could be made in today’s hypersensitive times. After initially taking offense at the character, Kazakhstan appears to have made its peace with him. But of course, Borat was never actually Kazakh. Baron Cohen’s character speaks a combination of Hebrew and Polish. The scenes in his hometown were shot in a Roma village in Romania, using local extras. The movie was banned across much of the Arab world. Much of the music used comes from Croat-Serb composer Goran Bregović’s sublime scores for the films of director Emir Kusturica, who still considers himself Yugoslav. Borat himself feels like he was modeled after Mahir Çağrı, a mustachioed, Speedo-friendly Turkish journalist whose goofy home page turned him into one of the world’s first internet celebrities back in the late 1990s. (Mahir actually sued Baron Cohen at one point — but then again, who didn’t?)
In other words, Borat always represented an imaginary Pan-Balkan–Central Asian–Middle Eastern other who embodied the prejudices and retrograde beliefs the West often unfairly ascribed to those cultures. (This is why I broke out in hives when I first saw him on Da Ali G Show.) And his gambit was always to turn the tables on those who dared judge him, to show how once you scratched their amiable surfaces, America’s supposedly enlightened etiquette consultants and southern gentlemen and sales associates and college students and doctors and politicians turned out to be just as bigoted and primitive as Borat was. Only he was a fake man from a fake land and they were real people from a real society.
And now here he is again. He’s still fake and we’re still real. If his bite isn’t quite as sharp as it was before, it’s because the world has caught up to, and in some cases surpassed, his phony lunacy. So, no, we don’t actually need Borat anymore. But we should still be glad he exists.
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