The First ‘Borat’ Poked Fun At Americans. ‘Borat 2’ Detests Them
The film is also deeply savage in its attempts to humiliate Trump and his followers.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s original Borat was a game-changing work of comedic cinema, despite not strictly being cinema at all.
A sharp-edged fable based on a character who Baron Cohen had been honing since his days on British television, the film was more like a series of skits, strung together with the thinnest of plots — the Kazakh journalist of the title must make his way through America, learn its customs, and eventually marry and/or kidnap Pamela Anderson. Simple.
So simple, in fact, that the idea of a sequel seemed doomed from the outset. More of the same would only ever seem like diminishing returns, especially given: A) how popular the first film turned out to be, and B) how desperately Baron Cohen’s skill for getting ordinary people to say extraordinary things needs a compact format.
Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius, there is no doubt, but he works best when he’s cramming the jokes thick and fast — The Dictator, his 2012 satire, shows the terrible things that happen when he gets ponderous. There’s a reason that Borat is just shy of 85 minutes.
Fun fact: every time Borat speaks Kazakh he's actually speaking fluent Hebrew (and it matches the subtitles pretty well)
— Jason Schreier (@jasonschreier) October 24, 2020
It is one of the great pleasures of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm then, one of the finest films of the year, that it doesn’t try to repeat anything that’s come before. In fact, it’s one of the few sequels that seems to actively dislike its forebearer — a movie that tears up the battered manual, and scrawls a new set of rules on the side of a truck-stop bathroom in the blood of a monkey who may or may not have been Kazakhstan’s Minister for Culture.
The first Borat broke the conventions of comedic cinema. The new Borat breaks the rules of Borat.
*Mild spoilers included in this review*
A Scalpel Not A Bludgeon
The biggest difference between the two films is the introduction of an actual plot. While the original remembered its overarching narrative only intermittently, sacrificing narrative cohesion for as many shocking scenarios as possible, the sequel is propelled by constant forward momentum.
Even asides like a quick visit to a bakery turn out to be embedded deeply into the structure of the film; the laughs flow naturally, but always with one leading to another, and characters who might initially seem minor pop up again in new and surprising ways.
Luckily, the scripted asides are also tighter and funnier here. In the original, they frequently felt like distractions — the real meat was in Baron Cohen using his psychologist’s eye for taboo-shattering. But in the sequel, the scripted scenes and the live-wire quasi-documentary pranks feed off each other naturally.
It’s sometimes really quite hard to tell the two apart; an interaction with two lovely old Jewish ladies who try to talk Borat out of his anti-semitism seem to constantly walk the line between the artificial and the painfully, toe-curlingly real.
It’s clearly the state of the world that has led to that increase in focus. The first Borat has contempt for Americans, but the sequel has something like actual distaste. In the world of the film, Borat’s aim is to try to seduce first Mike Pence, then Rudy Giuliani. As a filmmaker, Baron Cohen’s aim, just as outrageously, is to change the course of the American election — the final title card encourages everyone to go out and vote, and the film is deeply savage in its attempts to humiliate Trump and his followers.
At one point, trying to sneak into a Republican convention, Borat disguises himself as White House aide Stephen Miller by donning a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The first film would never have drawn such a direct shot at a political party; the targets of its jokes were vaguer, less timely. But here, Baron Cohen is using a scalpel, not a bludgeon.
That might be a strange thing to say about a film that features an extended incest joke, and a fertility dance soaked with period blood. And yet by the time the film is over, it has laid bare not just America, as the original did, but the structure of American political power in its entirety, from the puritanical goons at the top to the click-farmers at the very bottom.
The Real Star Isn’t Borat: It’s His Daughter
None of this focus would work were it not for the introduction of Borat’s Daughter, Tutar, played with eye-watering gusto by Maria Bakalova. She is the film’s beating heart, and its anarchic, blood-smeared triumph — Borat 2‘s most outlandish scenes belong always to her.
Like Baron Cohen, she is a devastatingly sharp improvisor — her meeting with an Instagram-famous influencer is an unceasing volley of quips — and like Baron Cohen, she perfectly embodies the role, down to her twitchy, angular posture. Tutar is a total comedic creation, and following her journey from cage-dwelling monkey-eater to Rudy Giuliani-seducing journalist is what keeps the film grounded.
It’s also, astonishingly, what makes Borat woke. A sub-plot of the film sees the journalist gradually learn about the rights of women. And, without here ruining the excellent finale, he’s largely successful — whereas Baron Cohen might have once made a quick cynical joke to undo Borat’s new feminist credentials, in this film he ensures they remain sincere.
I employ a babysitter in US&A, but since I did not have a baby for her to sit on, instead she take care of my daughter pic.twitter.com/LMmP9jazuc
— Borat (@BoratSagdiyev) October 24, 2020
As a result, the film’s conclusion is almost genuinely moving, particularly when it turns its gaze to coronavirus, and drops a gasp-inducing, chaotic cameo. Somehow, totally against the odds, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm manages to be both sadder and more upbeat than its predecessor; more immersed in the uglier things about our world, and more hopeful that they can be changed.
How many films that feature a scene in which a young woman opens a beer bottle with her asshole can lay claim to that?
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.