Review: ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’

by Koom Kankesan

The Borat sequel Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, or Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan to use its full title, for all its shocks and startles, does what almost every typical comedy sequel does: it replicates the template of its original.

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The movie starts with Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) in a gulag. Long haired and bearded, he’s been toiling away for years in penal servitude, his reward for making Kazakhstan a laughing stock as a result of his first film. Premier Nazarbayev (in this movie, a fat, grizzled, vodka swilling ogre) decides to give Borat a reprieve if he will deliver Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture and premier porno star Johnny the Monkey (an actual monkey) to Mike Pence in order that Pence may give Johnny to Donald Trump. Why do they want to give Johnny the Monkey to Trump? Because Premier Nazarbayev resents not being part of Trump’s ‘Strong Man’ political club and he hopes the gift of Johnny the Monkey will rectify this.

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Before Borat begins his voyage to deliver the monkey, he has to fob off his fifteen year old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) who longs for attention and care from her father. Since Tutar is a girl, Borat treats her with the customary neglect and abasement we’ve come to expect from previous Borat ventures. However, she smuggles herself into Johnny the Monkey’s packing crate, promptly eats the monkey, and insists Borat take her on his US voyage with him.

You see how some of the same motifs from the first film are repeated: instead of an emotional fallout and reconciliation with his director, Borat falls out with and reconciles with his daughter. In the first film, the director eats Borat’s bear Oksana and in the new film, Tutar eats Johnny the Monkey. Instead of riding with frat boys in a winnebago, he lives with some QAnon dudes who help him on his journey. In the first film, he sings “Throw the Jew down the well” at a country bar and in the new film, he dresses up as ‘Country Steve’ to sing a country song about giving Democrats the “Wuhan Flu”. And so on, and so on.

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Some of these bits are funny despite being reminiscent of the first film. There’s a bit where Borat (unrecognizably dressed in a fat suit and Trump costume replete with full-headed rubber mask) carries Tutar over his shoulder into the CPAC conference where Pence is giving a speech, ostensibly to give Tutar to Pence in lieu of Johnny the Monkey. It’s one of those bold stunts worthy of Cohen’s younger days but its impact and humour is undercut by the feeling that it’s similar to that incredible scene in the first film where Borat and his director wrestle their way naked through the hotel’s convention. It just seemed fresher and funnier, more shocking the first time around. What is it that compels sequels to ape the structures of their predecessors?

We might also ask ourselves: what prompts a near fifty year old man to put on disguises and run around trying to make fools of people while sowing turmoil and grasping for attention? In this case, it’s Trump and the looming U.S. election. I realize that this review will come out at least a good two weeks after the film has been released through Amazon Prime and probably a good few days after Joe Biden has secured his electoral college votes. However, it’s worth noting that although Cohen has always mixed political satire into his brew, he’s never really privileged his political leanings over his comedic ones. Much of what contributed to his immense popularity in the mid 2000’s was his reckless willingness to mock liberals and conservatives alike and throw himself into untenable scenarios, no matter the cost. Despite having an undergrad degree in political science, he’s always been a shock comedian first and foremost.

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And this is where part of the problem lies. Despite being fiercely intelligent, Cohen’s never had a cogent political agenda. Sure, he’s spoken out against Facebook and other social media allowing hate speech on their platforms. Sure, he tends to villainize right wing politicians and demagogues because they’re easy to mock. Sure, he’s a satirist with a need to continually play for more reckless stakes. Take his show Who Is America? from two years ago, a sort of sequel to Da Ali G Show, showcasing new characters for Cohen to lose himself in. The show was presented in such a way that it appeared to be investigating and satirizing American culture in the wake of the 2016 election. However, for all the YouTube worthy clips of him embarrassing people like Dick Cheney and Jason Spencer, there were some throwaway bits that really felt like he was floundering for material and direction. It doesn’t come together and neither does the Borat sequel. Do we really need to make fun of rednecks at this point, using the same old bait? Do we really need to make the same anti-Semitic remarks, hoping people will feel outrageously offended? It’s shooting fish in a barrel but apparently, Cohen thinks we do.

Another part of the problem lies with a media landscape (which you could argue Cohen helped create) that is much more desensitized today than it was some fourteen years ago. The stuff Cohen does is now no longer as fresh nor shocking. I like the ‘Khazak fertility dance’ Borat performs with Tutar at the Southern ball for fathers and daughters where she prominently displays the blood from her period, I like that he tries to convince a plastic surgeon to insert potatoes into her breasts because Borat can’t afford to spring for saline enhancements, and I especially love the moment when Tutar supposedly opens a beer bottle using her anus for the benefit of a shocked Instagram ‘sugar baby’ influencer, but these scenes just don’t have the same comedic impact their predecessors did.

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And yet another problem is that the emotional arc is just too forced. The narrative is too falsely sentimental. The previous film’s narrative was barely held together by rubber bands. It was just a framework for Cohen to do his reckless chaotic thing. Borat’s director in the original didn’t have a lot of lines but they had a basic oddball chemistry that worked for the ridiculousness of the film. You could have barely called Borat’s fixation with Pamela Anderson a through line but it brought the film to a satisfying conclusion – who could forget that meeting with Anderson at a book signing where he chases her around the store trying to bag her with a matrimonial sack? Or the conclusion where he takes Luenell back to live with him in Kazakhstan? Apparently, Cohen did get footage with Trump and one of his sons this time around but decided to cut it for some reason. I hope it wasn’t because Cohen didn’t want to risk a feud with Trump – who has been known to more than carry a grudge. What we get instead is a choppy scene with Rudy Giuliani which is far from satisfactory. Giuliani constantly serves himself up for ridicule in real life anyway and his appearance in this movie just seems like a soft lob. To borrow a phrase from the Donald himself, it just seems a bit ‘sad.’

The personal stuff with Tutar is even more forced. Bakalova is a fine performer – she plays her character with focus; she just doesn’t seem to be able to meet Cohen on his level of zany oddball-ness. It’s not that she doesn’t have chutzpah – it’s that she’s sort of playing her character straight while Cohen’s dancing a wacky jig. Cohen, despite being brave while playing some of his characters (especially Bruno), has always preferred a gross gag or extreme deadpan depravity to polemics. Therefore, as Tutar becomes accustomed to learning about women’s rights and Borat is forced to adapt, we feel condescended to and shortchanged. We don’t need Borat to tell us feminism is important. We need him to be a force of chaotic nature that upends every situation he walks into. We don’t need him to make a half-hearted pass at the current political situation. We need him to foreground the funny and dish depravity.

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Don’t get me wrong. Cohen’s still a very funny performer and there are many hilarious moments and lines in the movie. But it’s the small things that last over the bigger stunt pieces. I love the DVD covers of Johnny the Monkey’s porno videos. I found the scene of Borat and Nazarbayev faxing ‘Sup?’ to each other hilarious – Borat does not understand the concept of smartphones and thinks they are fancy calculators. And I especially love the Kazakh version of a Disney animated movie that Tutar watches at the beginning of the film. In a sort of Kazakh cross between Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella, Trump (in Disney prince regalia) sees the peasant woman Melania, and becomes ‘more turgid’ then he’s ever been, whisking her away from her S#!t-hole country. On the other hand, the Kazakh daughter manual which Tutar carries throughout the film, serving as the backbone of various bits, feels uninspired and flat.

All in all, Cohen’s new movie is like Who is America? You’ll really want to see it if you haven’t already, your craving will be satisfied in the same way candy will give you a mild sugar rush, but you’ll still be hungry for something more fresh and substantial afterwards. The fact that it was engineered and released to coincide with the U.S. election will not have made a whit of difference, either to your viewing or to the election itself. It’ll have sort of been a diversion that wasn’t quite successful at diverting you, instead making you long for a project reminiscent of the brilliance and promise in Cohen’s early work.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is out now to stream on Amazon Prim.e

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