Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Popular Demand, by David Bax
Sixteen years ago, in the only such occurrence in the last 31 years of American politics, a Republican candidate for president won the popular vote. To many of us, the comfortable reelection of George W. Bush caused a kind of cognitive dissonance; how could so many people support this man? 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan helped confirm what we suspected, that a substantial number of Americans are boastfully ignorant, guided by prejudice and indifferent to the lives of those outside of their personal experiences. All it took was an affable, smiling, simpleton foreigner to confirm their stereotypes and, in no time, you could get a group of Americans to cheer a sentiment like, “May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman and child of Iraq!” Now, Sacha Baron Cohen has put back on the mustache and gray suit for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and this time, after nearly four years of Donald Trump being bolstered and encouraged by his base of salivating, racist ghouls, there’s a feeling of, “Yeah, we know,” when Borat gets someone to unwittingly reveal their personal awfulness. More often than not, though, it’s still very funny. There’s always been an uncomfortable feeling that Cohen’s comedy might just be punching down at a bunch of idiots. But now that the idiots are undeniably running things, he’s punching up at a major threat.
Within the reality of Subsequent Moviefilm, the original Borat was a cultural phenomenon that embarrassed Borat’s home country of Kazakhstan. Well, actually, that’s what happened in our reality, too. But, in the movie, Borat has been sentenced to life in a labor camp. He’s only released when Kazakhstan’s premier, jealous of the other strongman, human rights-trampling heads of state that have been embraced by President Trump, enlists him to use his knowledge of America to deliver a bribe to Mike Pence. He’s supposed to give the Vice President a monkey but, when Borat’s daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), stows away, the decision is made to let her be the gift instead.
Subsequent Moviefilm is clearly–even before the plea to vote comes up in the end titles–timed to aid the case against the incumbent president, much like Michael Moore’s 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11, which (see the previous paragraph) failed to take down its target. What makes it more timely–and what may prove to be its lasting legacy–is that it’s the first major movie to explicitly address the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus’ breakout happened during filming–in one section, Cohen, dressed as Borat dress as President Trump, sneaks into a CPAC convention to witness Vice President Pence ensuring attendees that the coronavirus was minor and that the administration was, “ready, ready for anything.” Later scenes will take place in quarantine, at an anti-lockdown rally and in a partially reopened, masked and socially distanced New York City. It’s a fascinating document for these inclusions alone.
Oh, right, but this is still a comedy. And, as mentioned above, it’s a very funny one. Since Borat has become an American celebrity both in the movie’s world and in our real one, Cohen is able to wring laughs from his being recognized on what’s supposed to be a covert mission. The solution is for him to don a series of ridiculous disguises. Cohen’s doubling up of both costumes and accents is consistently hilarious, even if the obviousness of it makes for less awkwardness in his interactions with regular people; he’s not fooling them. For that, though, Subsequent Moviefilm has Bakalova, who’s terrific here and who is able to elicit the shocked and bewildered reactions we expect from a Borat movie, like when she attempts to rally a meeting of Republican women around her very recently discovered love of masturbation, complete with detailed instructions.
In keeping with the previous film, Subsequent Moviefilm admirably refuses to just be a series of segments, sticking (mostly) to its core narrative mission, to a washed-out aesthetic (meant to suggest the low quality of Kazakhstani equipment) and to its emotional thrust, a surprisingly touching story of father/daughter bonding. Even amidst the uncomfortable scenes in the offices of a Christian clinic or of a pervy cosmetic surgeon, we see Borat and Tutar growing closer.
Where Subsequent Moviefilm falters on occasion is exactly those moments when it does forget to be a coherent whole. Sneaking into CPAC in a KKK robe in order to blend in is more point-making than joke-making. It’s a weak Daily Show bit not worthy of what we know Cohen can do. In other words, it’s like a lot of Brüno. Cohen is an activist comedian, to be sure, but he does better when pulling things out of people than when pushing things onto them. Thankfully, Subsequent Moviefilm does more of the former than the latter.