Over the years, actor and producer Sacha Baron Cohen has graced the screen with many attempts to recreate the globe-spanning success of his most iconic role, Borat. Now, 14 years after the original faux-documentary skewered American culture and its reputation abroad, Cohen returns with a new story to tell about America during the Trump presidency, and incidentally, the COVID-19 era.
Now titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, or to be even more explicit, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, this sequel certainly lives up to the promise of its label. The supposedly part-improv/part-scripted comedy picks up with Borat in a Kazakhstan prison camp, suffering the consequences of the first film making his country into the laughingstock of the entire world. But the Prime Minister gives Borat an unlikely shot at redemption. If he can return to America and successfully exchange a bribe with someone high up in the Trump administration, he can avoid execution and get his old life back as the number four reporter in all of Kazakhstan.
But as Borat wanders the streets of America yet again, he faces a new problem that mirrors the challenges Cohen would always have to overcome while doing a film like this again. Due to its pop culture permutation, Borat is practically a household name in 2020, which means he can’t as easily extract outrageous quotes from real-life strangers. He’s immediately recognized by fans of the original Borat, and they promptly hound him for autographs and photos. And to make matters worse, his estranged daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) has stowed away on the trip to America, complicating his plan to give a gift to the current vice president.
As you can imagine, this is all part of Cohen’s roundabout scheme to address the inherent shortcomings of a Borat sequel in a world where this schtick has already been played out. So he wisely evolves the premise by enlisting a seemingly never-ending closet of disguises and also by quite literally grooming Bakalova into a right-wing reporter who can help him pull off similarly brazen stunts designed to make audiences laugh and cringe in equal measure. It’s especially impressive to see how Cohen and his army of screenwriters retooled the film supposedly on the fly in order to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which happened to explode in notoriety during the actual production.
While the 2006 film was certainly more timeless in its general approach to lambasting American attitudes about racism, misogyny, and foreign relations, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has a much easier time getting people to say outlandish things in a political atmosphere where abhorrent shamelessness has become mainstream. So it matters that Cohen has added something extra to his formula, and that’s a dose of emotion and dare I say it, heart. It could be easy to misread his intentions here about promoting empathy with people who don’t deserve it, but instead, there’s an easier case to be made about how this sequel celebrates the audacity of progress in an oppressive world.
Cohen takes a lot of chances, here, and part of the reason it pays off is because he knows when to take the spotlight off himself and show it more brightly on the side characters of the film, including two lovely Jewish women who welcome him into their synagogue and share some food with him, as well as a Black babysitter who takes some time to talk sense into Tutar’s warped views of gender roles. Cohen also uses foils in the film to demonstrate how far social media has come (or devolved) since 2006, specifically in how it’s become a megaphone for the fringe beliefs perhaps considered anomalous just over a decade ago.
For many across the political spectrum, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will feel like a hilarious balm on a particularly divisive time in modern American history. Of course, what might be cathartic for some can also be illuminating for others simply looking to have a good laugh. They’ll get far more than they bargained for, including a career-marking performance from Bakalova, the film’s secret weapon and crucial ingredient. It’s hard to imagine anyone else bringing this story and all its gimmicks to life, capturing the same effortless chemistry with Cohen, while also having the chops to fool scores of people into embarrassing gaffes.
Unlike the first film, this isn’t the radical, out-of-nowhere shocker that will dominate pop culture for months, but we do get a strikingly sweet follow-up with plenty to say while you’re picking your jaw up from the floor so you can go back to laughing in fits. Considering what could have been a tiring retread desperate to relive the past, it’s, ahem, very nice to see something far more earnest, creative, and comedically well-timed.