As much as October traditionally belongs to the horror genre, it’s obvious to everyone that this moment in American culture belongs to the all-consuming presidential election. The movie world is no different— last week, I reviewed Netflix’s attempt at political film for our times, and this week, I review Amazon’s. Both, coincidentally, star Sacha Baron-Cohen, who apparently spent his summer secretly(!) filming a sequel to 2006’s Borat, his hilariously outrageous skewering of Bush-era America. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm brings his iconic Kazakh journalist character back to take on the Trump era, and while it suffers somewhat (as all political comedy must) from the absurdity of reality, its successes are well worth our attention.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm begins by catching us up on the life of Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron-Cohen) since the release of his first film, which was as beloved internationally as it was loathed by his native Kazakhstan. After spending years imprisoned in a gulag for shaming his country, Borat is suddenly called on by his government to complete a diplomatic mission: deliver national treasure Johnny the Monkey to Donald Trump as a gift from the Kazakh Premier (Dani Popescu), in the hopes that he’ll be considered part of the political “tough guy” club of Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Bolsonaro. When his teenage daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) smuggles herself along and Johnny dies in transit, Borat makes the only logical decision left to him— Tutar will be the gift instead.
It should be said that, as a comedy, Borat Subsequent Moviefim absolutely works. Baron-Cohen and director Jason Woliner follow the original’s mix of scripted interactions and outrageous bits involving real, unsuspecting people, and both generate their share of laughter, with one of the former in particular even getting my vote for the year’s most cathartic movie moment. It also undoubtedly makes less of an impact than its predecessor, and that today’s public is more conscious of what these movies expose than they were in 2006 seems a likely reason why. But personally, I credit it more to the film’s tendency to lean into the (excellent) chemistry between Baron-Cohen and Bakalova. Having someone there to back up Borat’s deeply offensive worldview is hilarious, but it creates fewer opportunities for the friction between him and real people to drive scenes, and everything feels less revealingly spontaneous.
The most notable exceptions are, surprisingly, moments of spontaneous humanity. Just as ‘the foreigner’ was used to expose the biases of mid-2000’s America, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm successfully deploys ‘the young woman’ against the Trump era, and a frank discussion about beauty standards between Tutar and the woman babysitting her is a real turning point for the film’s emotional stakes. The conversation between Borat and Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans is another. Her compassion in the face of his voracious anti-Semitism is striking; her complete lack of surprise is heartbreaking. The first Borat was released in a time when people’s willingness to go along with his racism and sexism was shocking, and a prevailing faith in goodness meant it could be assumed that the filmmakers only included the reactions they were looking for. This time around, when watching Borat make crowds at an anti-lockdown protest sing about executing journalists inspires a grimace and a nod, it’s comforting to know there were people who actually pushed back.