Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020) is a sequel to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), which is also a fully dedicated film to a character from creator (and the person portraying the Borat persona) Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show.
The origins of the character Borat, a reporter from Kazahkstan who travels to western countries and does wild things in front of an unsuspecting audience, is steeped in harsh satirical roots. So much so that even to this day some viewers are unsure as to what Borat in interviews and sketches is making fun of. Borat is a disgusting character, highly impressionable from an exaggerated, impoverished nation. His accent and personal character quirks distinctly fit common Eurasian/Turkish stereotypes and even harsh xenophobic rumors and misconceptions propagated from prominent western cultures. He keeps women and the disabled in cages, he is grossly anti-Semitic (the fictionalized version of Kazahkstan in the original film took part in “Running of the Jew” festivals, for instance), and is technologically illiterate and ignorant of the modern world or its morals.
However, don’t be mistaken: Borat (mostly, I think a case could be made for an offensive nature still) isn’t a critique of Turkish countries or its people; it’s criticizing the rest of the world in which Borat visits. The original film was rooted firmly in the middle of the war on terror and he interviewed common people from America, mostly the American south. What is particularly nuanced about the Borat character is the balance between how ridiculously awful he is as opposed to the social negligence, permission, or even encouragement from people otherwise (supposedly) opposed to the idea of Borat. Xenophobia was particularly high in the Bush era, so when Borat wears an American shirt as a mockery and sings about throwing Jews down a well so your nation can be liberated, the horror is in every person clapping other than Borat. Borat is clearly a caricature, but the deeply rooted hypocrisy and subtle evils brought about by common people who judge him for the wrong things are very very real.
This political element seems to have been too subtle, apparently. If the Borat of the Bush era was subtle in its politics, Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm goes for as explosive of an approach as the pussy-grabbing bad hombre of a president that is Donald Trump.
To discuss the premise, the sequel takes place in early 2020 as Borat and the nation of Kazahkstan are still suffering from the public and global embarrassment the original film brought upon their nation. The nation’s Premier sees an opportunity to gain global clout with President Trump’s current flirtations with other dictators (Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, if only these were actual jokes instead of the truth), so he decides to try and send Borat to the United States to gift Vice President Mike Pence Kazahkstan’s most revered pornographic film director: a monkey.
Borat’s daughter Tutar (played by Maria Bakalova, a Bulgarian actress) secretly tags along in the crate intended for the monkey in hopes of escaping to America and actually spending time with her father. What proceeds are the hijinx of a father and daughter in America.
The premise of a “Borat 2” always had problems: the conceit of the character relies on Cohen not being recognized and people unaware that Borat is a joke. With the success of the first Borat, that is almost impossible. They even acknowledge this in the film, when people on the street instantly recognize Borat. The gimmick is toast. Another problem: in the Trump political era, satire has proven to be middling because of how wacky the reality actually is. South Park, Saturday Night Live, and many political comedians struggle with making something ridiculous more ridiculous. How does satire stand a chance in 2020?
The first problem is addressed in two essential ways. First, Borat wears disguises and pretends to be other personas. This lets Cohen experiment more with the audience and the interviews, but also loses some of the essential “Borat”-ness of it. Now Borat is often pretending to be an American, for instance, and the joke of the situation meets somewhere in the middle of sometimes funny, sometimes not, but it’s never as effective as Borat himself.
The second way is much more effective, and ultimately saves the film. The film becomes about grooming Borat’s daughter, so Bakalova’s Tutar character becomes the actual crux of almost all encounters. She’s the joke, she’s the hidden element nobody is expecting. The climax of the film is based around her tricking someone, not Borat. This is no small praise to Bakalova. She’s doing the heavy lifting now.
Just as well, the grooming plot allows the satire to be focused on the treatment of women in the first half of the film. The focus helps. Now, when there’s a shopkeep selling Borat cages, there’s a girl excited to pick the finest cage to be in, really driving the point home. Or when a woman proudly declares she owns her own business, and Borat makes excuses to Tutar about how a woman could possibly run her own business.
Tutar also separates from Borat at a certain point in the film, and learns a different way to approach things. With Borat, she goes to debutante balls to learn how to be a proper lady. Without Borat, we see Tutar learn what a liberated western woman is capable of in the modern world (and the answer is anything). This diversion works, because it properly shows the division in America between values, something the original Borat film struggled to do. The polarized dialogue in America has now made the joke play better.
This is especially apparent in the second half of the film. While more disjointed and scripted, the film’s politics and reality start to blend into a beautifully grotesque portrait. That is to say, the second half of the film deals with fake news, COVID-19, and how the public at large reacted to the initial reception and misinformation dealing with the virus. Clearly, a problem long forgotten as of November 2020.
The shared bond of isolation over COVID-19 vs the different viewpoints of how to approach the virus allowed Borat to explore the divided nation with a proper conduit. Like before, the people he interviewed resemble Borat. Now, instead of Borat hating Jews and fearing gypsy child blood while onlookers mostly nodded in subtle approval, we see Trump supporters openly discuss COVID theories and Liberal pedophile rings. Their comments on Hillary Clinton sucking the blood of children to maintain youth is a common QAnon theory in reality, but is also derivative from the same anti-Semitic rhetoric and beliefs Borat supposedly holds. To drive the point home but not endorse, Borat goes to a synagogue this time and learns firsthand from real witnesses that Jews are actual people (not a secret cabal or monsters) and the holocaust was very, very, very real. This scene was pre-planned beforehand for the sole purpose of being clear about the holocaust instead of the satire muddling messages, and that is a smart choice that helps the film.
The fact that Borat is a reporter becomes actually powerful here, as Tutar’s resolve to become a better reporter than her dad and infiltrating the press circuit is exactly the sort of fake news dynamic that the Trump administration so desperately seeks to “challenge”. Strange, then, that so fake of a reporter as Tutar needs only to flash her eyelashes at Rudy Giuliani (Trump’s personal lawyer) and her press pass, and Giuliani is smitten. I mean, it’s only polite to be nice to a vulnerable, young, beautiful, reporter eager to move up in her career. He can help her too: take another sip of bourbon, let’s go to the bedroom while I ask for your number and adjust my belt. Fake news? To the Trump Administration, it doesn’t matter, and that was the real gotcha of the climax, whether or not you think Giuliani actually was guilty of certain implications. The standards they hold are a false pretense, a deflection to mask the casual ugliness of the administration.
The structure also helps because it gives Borat an actual character arc. By the end of the first film, nobody really learned anything. Borat just learned what America was like and brought American things to Kazahkstan. Here, Borat learns to be a better father. This is a core problem of the original Borat; there was a grey area where you weren’t exactly sure if the jokes you were laughing at were the same jokes or the same reasons someone else was laughing. Some people took the first film at face value, and the lack of focus meant more people could enjoy it, but the message was lost on many. The character arc and the scenes mentioned before allow there to still be biting satire but no room for ambiguity.
Talking about themes and creative decisions is all fun and games until the sun sets and my word count runs high, so is the movie GOOD? Is the movie FUNNY? Yeah, I would say so. I think the jokes may be a tad tired, Borat as a character certainly is getting dated, but as mentioned before the changes to the approach allow for the film to be much greater than a connected string of Borat skits. It’s not as tight as an actual scripted comedy, it’s not as unique or bold as the first time you’ve ever watched Borat, but it’s all fine. When it’s not fine, it’s great.
To speak on the business and distribution model for a second, the fact that this film is easily accessible via Amazon Prime upon release which allows little direct money to be gained but have incredibly high view counts, that might be the proper model for films like Borat. I can’t think of a better time to make, release, or watch this film than right now, and that’s possibly the best thing you could say about a film, ever.