Director: Jason Woliner
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman, Lee Kern
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova
Cinematographer: Luke Geissbuhler
Editors: Craig Alpert, Michael Giambra, James Thomas
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
A wonderfully effective paradox is at the heart of Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy. By adopting a series of fictional personas to conceal his true identity, he gets people to reveal the worst parts of theirs.
The best example of this is his 2018 seven-episode show Who Is America, in which he exposed prominent political figures as bumbling idiots. The results were astounding. Impersonating an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, he got Republican state representative Jason Spencer to yell out racial slurs and bare his backside as part of 'training' to repel terrorists.
In Amazon Prime Video's Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, however, even the disguises aren't enough. Set 14 years after the events of the first film, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) is deployed from Kazakhstan on a mission to gift the American Vice President Mike Pence a genius monkey. Once the mockumentary shifts to America and Cohen dons the Borat get-up there, he's instantly recognised by fans who quote his lines back to him and ask for autographs. The disguise is no longer a foolproof way to rage against the machine from the outside, it's been co-opted by the system, even sold in shops as a Halloween costume. The scene is emblematic of the movie as a whole — Borat may want to serve as an indictment of modern American society, but is simultaneously someone whose brand of lunacy qualifies him to fit right in. How crazy can one man's antics seem in a world so off-kilter already?
His schtick, designed to provoke maximum outrage, isn't as shocking in 2020. What also isn't is how easily members of the public are willing to roll with it. When he asks a baker to write 'Jews will not replace us' on a cake he's just bought, she does so without hesitation. At a tanning salon, the nonplussed owner replies promptly when he asks her what shade of brown she recommends for a racist family. The scenes play out like an extension of headlines from the current news cycle and elicit as much of a reaction from a jaded audience. There's little need to invent a ruse to trick people into making sexist, racist and homophobic statements on camera, so many do it willingly on camera every day, eliminating the thrill of the film's 'gotcha' moments. Even the impact of that headline-making Rudy Giuliani scene rests more on the implications of what could've happened had Cohen not burst into the room, rather than the footage actually contained in the film.
The political jabs land more sharply when they come from Cohen poking fun at his targets, rather than waiting for them to say something that will reveal themselves as the butt of the joke. A scene in which he attends a Republican rally dressed as a KKK member and introduces himself as senior Trump advisor Stephen Miller is a standout. As is one in which Borat laments the number of Africans in public office increasing after Obama's tenure, after which the film cuts to a photo of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface.
The heart (and a majority of the belly laughs) in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm stem from Borat's relationship with his daughter, a fantastic Maria Bakalova who's game for anything and can go toe-to-toe with Cohen in the deadpan department. The decision to give Borat a sidekick he can riff off is a smart one, even though some of the more emotional moments between them cause the film to sag.
Released ahead of the US Presidential Election and depicting just how widespread misinformation surrounding Coronavirus is, the film makes its political goals overt by the end, with a message that reads: Now vote. Or you will be execute. As such, it positions itself as an urgent appeal in the current moment, rather than a satire that's timeless. And that works. It's hard to hold a mirror to society when the reflection is all too familiar.