From Dick Cheney to Ron Paul to Roy Moore to now, and most infamously, Rudy Giuliani, it seems that for a certain swath of gullible conservatives, getting punked by Sacha Baron Cohen is almost a rite of passage. Their punishment is light: widespread social-media ridicule for a week or so, made worse by the aggrieved politicos’ vacuous threats of legal action, before the aberrant behavior modeled for Cohen’s camera is digested and forgotten, just one icky morsel in the insatiable churn of the news cycle. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This is perhaps the way it should be. After all the hype about the notorious, climactic hotel-room scene with Giuliani in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”—as the attorney begins to fondle himself, through his clothes, at the thought of sleeping with a fawning 15-year-old reporter played by (24-year-old) Cohen protégé Maria Bakalova—the scene is cut short, mercifully so for America’s Mayor. For this latest high-profile victim of Cohen’s shtick, it could have been worse, and this too shall pass.
What’s less easy to shake are the dozen or so profoundly revealing scenes that precede it, the less headline-grabbing but profoundly corrosive exposés of a distinctly American rot. This is Cohen’s greatest gift—his ability to hold, under the cloak of an ignorant Kazakh bigot, a mirror to our country’s own ignorance and bigotry. He provides the rope for America to hang itself.
The narrative through-line for Cohen’s Borat revival is an appropriately simple one, providing the minimalist skeleton for the comic actor to let his brutal ruses play out in all of their gross and incendiary and hilarious episodes. Borat, imprisoned in a Kazakh gulag, is given one chance to redeem himself and his nation: deliver Johnny the Monkey, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture, to Vice President Pence in an effort to win the graces of President Trump. When this plan promptly falls apart, and upon learning of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-trafficking crimes and powerful client list, Borat selects an alternative “gift” for our administration: his daughter Tutar (Bakalova).
Tutar being a dirty, waifish child from a cultural backwater, much of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”is spent grooming her to be the ideal sex object for a lascivious Republican politician. (Anyone remotly in the president’s orbit will do, really; Giuliani happens to be the unfortunate mark who falls for the con.) They visit an “influencer” and admitted “sugar daddy” who initiates Tutar’s makeover in an effort to make her attractive to a man five times her age. They teach her feminine etiquette by enrolling her in a Georgia debutante ball, where one father eagerly offers his financial estimate as to Tutar’s “worth” (around $500). And they visit a louche plastic surgeon who uses the word “titties” and acknowledges, in full view of the camera, his desire to sleep with Tutar if her father “wasn’t around.”
Time and again in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”, average Americans like this become accomplices in shameful behavior. A Galveston man has no problem helping Borat confine his daughter to a shipping container; another suggests a cage that would be the perfect size in which to confine her. A baker fulfills Borat’s request for a cake emblazoned with the phrase “Jews Will Not Replace Us” without hesitation—which doesn’t make her a racist so much as an unscrupulous capitalist: Nothing to squelch a sale.
As with many documentaries with an agenda, I have to wonder how many bakers Cohen approached who refused to participate in spreading anti-Semitism. And yet the fact that this one exists is damning enough.
As with many features that began filming in 2019, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”was impeded by the coronavirus, which makes it into the story in a big way. Ever the master of disguise—I would argue he’s the Peter Sellers of his generation—Cohen winds up lodging with a pair of paranoid QAnoners at the height of quarantine, shedding his Borat attire for that of a racist country singer at an anti-lockdown protest, where he gins up the crowd to seig-heil and chant its support for Obama to contract COVID.
I laughed a lot during this uncomfortable film, probably more than at any title released in this momentous year. Cohen’s wit is at its sharpest, and Bakalova proves herself a worthy provocateur and torch carrier for his scorched-earth satire. But beyond its deeply effective humor is its status as a potential time capsule for the political and social disruptions of 2020. When future generations dig this film up, I shudder to imagine what they’ll think of us.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is available now on Amazon Prime.