He’s back! Sacha Baron Cohen’s greatest creation, the iconic character who encouraged stag-night attendees to squeeze into lime-green mankinis, has returned for a second film. Fourteen years after he shocked cinema-goers everywhere in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Amazon announced the new film was ready, a mere month ago. It was exciting, but it was worrying, too. How could a belated sequel possibly compare with a side-spitting, gobsmacking all-time comedy classic? The answer, I’m afraid, is that it can’t. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is nowhere near as hilarious as its predecessor. The pranks tend to be longer and baggier, more audacious than funny, and there is nothing to match the gross-out brilliance of the naked wrestling, or the magnificent silliness of keeping a bear in the back of an ice cream van. But be patient: the last half hour of Subsequent Moviefilm has enough fine material to make it all worthwhile.
Before that, the inevitable problem is how familiar the road-movie mockumentary format has become. As in the first film, Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) is trundling across the US on a mission to meet a celebrity. In 2006, his target was Pamela Anderson. In 2020, he has been digging ditches for years in a Kazakh gulag, having embarrassed his country with his ‘documentary’, but he is informed that he can redeem himself by visiting the US Vice President, Mike Pence, along with Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture (who happens to be a monkey). Soon, he is driving around Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia, saying rude things to locals, and hearing rude things from them in return. He can still prompt some chuckles, as well as some gasps of disbelief, but you can usually guess what is going to happen, and that simply wasn’t true of the original film.
Borat is such a well-known figure now that the filmmakers have to disguise him in several scenes. They didn’t have much choice. If Baron Cohen had stuck to the boxy grey suit, the curly hair and the big moustache, too many of the non-actors he speaks to would have realised that they were being conned. But the elaborate disguises don’t make sense in the fictional world of the film. A foreign reporter wouldn’t want to travel around the US incognito, and, anyway, his wigs and costumes are too effective for someone as incompetent as Borat to have come up with. It’s not that they’re perfect. They’re like the Quasimodo and mafia godfather outfits that Peter Sellers wears in The Pink Panther series. (And if anyone could reboot Inspector Clouseau, it’s Baron Cohen.) But whenever he puts on a fat suit, a fake beard and a false nose, you are reminded that you aren’t watching a clueless Kazakh journalist asking naive questions, you’re watching a crafty British comedian fooling his interviewees. Some of the charm is lost. Subsequent MovieFilm is closer in spirit to Baron Cohen’s 2018 series, Who Is America?, than it is to 2006’s Borat.
Subsequent Moviefilm is saved by its satirical focus and its secret weapon, Maria Bakalova
Perhaps it suffers from having a different director: Jason Woliner has taken the reins from legendary Seinfeld / Curb Your Enthusiasm alumnus, Larry Charles. But another, more significant reason why it is less enjoyable is that the world has changed since 2006. YouTube had barely launched back in that dim, distant era, so it was rare to see pranksters catching people off guard in public. Nowadays, you can watch countless Borat-style routines at the click of a mouse. A related point is that, in the first film, Baron Cohen amazed us by getting Americans to make the most outrageously toxic statements on camera. These days, in contrast, some Americans make those statements on camera every day. They don’t need anyone to coax or trick them into expressing opinions that might have been classed as extreme 14 years ago; they do so loudly and proudly.
Subsequent Moviefilm isn’t a write-off, though. It is saved by its satirical focus (which I’ll get to shortly), and by its secret weapon, Maria Bakalova, a Bulgarian actress who plays Borat’s 15-year-old daughter (“the oldest unmarried woman in Kazakhstan”). I missed Ken Davitian’s Azamat, and I was piqued that a new sidekick had been introduced in his place. But Bakalova is a real discovery. Most of the scenes that had me covering my eyes in mortified glee were the ones in which she took the lead. She is so wide-eyed and heartfelt in her interactions with strangers that her plotline becomes strangely emotional, and so fearless and quick-witted in the stunt sequences that she gives the film the surprise value that it lacks elsewhere. We already know that Baron Cohen can do this stuff; the thrill comes from seeing that someone else can do it, too.
Indeed, that climactic gotcha might explain why Subsequent Moviefilm has been released in such a hurry. The 2006 Borat was made during George W Bush’s presidency, but it didn’t comment explicitly on his administration. This one is far more topical. It has parts that could have been shot at any time, but most of it is about coronavirus, Facebook conspiracy theories, white supremacy, the sexual harassment that led to the MeToo movement, and various Trump-related scandals. Baron Cohen and his team are clearly more intent on influencing viewers at the ballot box than they are in making them laugh. They even finish with a caption: “NOW VOTE. OR YOU WILL BE EXECUTE.” [sic]
Having been made with a specific political purpose, Subsequent MovieFilm won’t age as well as the previous Borat did. Whereas that one will stand as an evergreen comedy, this one might be as ephemeral as a newspaper’s editorial cartoon or an episode of Spitting Image. But it’s the ripped-from-the-headlines relevance that makes it so fascinating, and it’s the boiling rage at current politics that makes it so bracing. There aren’t many films as urgently satirical as this one. You might not want to re-watch it in a few years’ time, but you should definitely watch it now.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is released on Amazon on 23 October 2020.
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