Image description: Sacha Baron Cohen in character as Borat, on a bus
Sacha Baron Cohen’s films are always difficult to pin down, being weird and often uncomfortable mixtures of straight comedy, satire, sketch-show, and documentary. I can confidently say that no one watching Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon Prime) is doing so for the plot. Nor, to be honest, will they be watching it for Baron Cohen’s acting. Borat is an amusing character, and his catchphrases and costume are sufficiently iconic to have made filming difficult, but he is really just a vehicle for Baron Cohen’s particular form of comedy-documentary.
We laugh at the unlucky Americans who fall for his terrible Kazakhstani accent and humiliate themselves on camera – but is this really comedy? What is said is often too bleak to simply be funny, and yet too outrageous for a serious documentary.
We laugh at the unlucky Americans who fall for his terrible Kazakhstani accent and humiliate themselves on camera – but is this really comedy?
The weakest points of the film are the bits that comprise the ‘plot’. Borat is sent to America to deliver a Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – the bribe being Johnny the Monkey (Kazakhstani Minister of Culture and porn star) – only to find that his daughter Tutar, played by the Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, has taken the monkey’s place. After a series of misadventures, we end up discovering the shocking truth about the Covid-19 pandemic and its links to the Kazakhstani government.
Neither Borat nor Tutar are developed enough as characters for us to care about them, but I doubt that we are supposed to care. Similarly, it is hardly surprising that the plot is too flimsy to stand on its own. The ‘plot’ is clearly little more than a framing device, and the scripted scenes featuring Borat and Tutar exist almost solely as set-ups for the next unscripted interaction with their unsuspecting subjects. Why, then, does it take up so much of the film’s running time? During most of these scenes, I found myself waiting for them to move on to their next target. However, it is this consistent framing device that sets Borat apart from Baron Cohen’s, in my opinion, less impressive, sketch-based TV show Who Is America?
it is hardly surprising that the plot is too flimsy to stand on its own
While Borat’s first feature-length outing (Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) has aged well as a document of President Bush’s post-9/11 America, I doubt the Subsequent Moviefilm will be so successful. Humiliating rural conservatives who prefer incest to abortion is clearly an aim, but if this film is about anything, it is about the supposed collapse of the Donald Trump Project. Trump’s favoured One America News Network, Q-Anon, and Covid-truther conspiracy theorists – those on the very extremes but amplified by the dystopian nightmare of 2020 – are Baron Cohen’s real targets.
Humiliating rural conservatives who prefer incest to abortion is clearly an aim, but if this film is about anything, it is about the supposed collapse of the Donald Trump Project.
This is not really a film about American society, or even American conservatism, but the very specific circumstances of mid-to-late-2020. Picking such particular targets makes for a more focussed film than its predecessor. It certainly builds to a more outrageous denouement, if its first half is somewhat pedestrian. Baron Cohen wants to show us the death-throes of Trumpism, but what he shows us can hardly be representative.
Writing this review on the day of the Presidential Election, I can see only two possible legacies for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Either Biden wins, and it becomes a strange yet minor footnote to an even stranger period of American history. Or Trump gets his Four More Years, and its tone will seem incredibly ill-judged.
Image Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection via 20th Century Fox