NEW YORK — We’ve been waiting 14 long years for a “Borat” sequel, so let’s get directly to it: No, I am sorry to say, it isn’t as good as the original.
But how could it be? The mostly unscripted “Borat” (technically “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”) came out of nowhere in late 2006, was a runaway success, effectively invented the modern “cringe comedy,” and unleashed a wave of idiotic catchphrases that have never gone out of style. It also had “the scene” — in which a completely naked Sacha Baron Cohen and his plump, hirsute pal fight naked through a packed hotel ballroom. Those of us lucky enough to see this in a packed auditorium were treated to a moment of pandemonium most ticket-buyers only dream about.
But the good news is that “Borat 2” (technically “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”), which comes out Amazon Prime Video on October 23, still makes a strong showing, and is very, very good. Since it can’t shock us with novelty, it is more pointed in its drive to expose racism and sexism. The first film’s quest to find Pamela Anderson (remember all that?) is exchanged here with Borat Sagdiyev trying to make a “gift” of his 15-year-old daughter, played by a brilliant young actress named Maria Bakalova who is every bit as fearless as Baron Cohen. The first attempt is to “Vice Pussygrabber” Mike Pence, and then “Ronald McDonald Trump’s” best pal Rudy Giuliani.
While Borat dressing as Trump and interrupting Pence’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference actually made some news in February (though no one at the time knew it was Sacha Baron Cohen), it’s the Giuliani scene that is most shocking. Which is saying something for a “Borat” movie.
While Baron Cohen is a trickster and I wouldn’t put it past him to use editing to, shall we say, enhance one of his “gotcha!” situations, the former New York City mayor and US President Donald Trump’s personal attorney certainly gets significantly “handsy” with the lovely young woman playing Borat’s daughter who gushes with affection as she interviews him. It’s unclear just how many hidden cameras are stashed in the hotel suite and what was truly “caught on tape,” but one thing is for certain: people will be rewatching this sequence frame-by-frame and asking a lot of questions.
Beyond the hilarity of seeing powerful men make dopes of themselves, the story in this movie, such as there is one, is that Borat, 14 years after the release of “Borat,” is dispatched by Kazakhstan’s prime minister back to the “US and A” to try and restore the shamed nation’s good name. It is an excuse, naturally, for a repeat of the first film’s formula, with Baron Cohen and his backward, arrogant beliefs resulting in unsettling “high fives” from a wide array of American racists and lunatics.
There’s the baker who puts “Jews will not replace us” in icing on a cake; there’s the propane salesman chuckling about how many gypsies could be torched to death with one of his tanks; there’s the gross dad at a debutante ball appraising Maria Bakalova at $500, much to the horrified reaction of his own daughter.
In 2006, unaware of Baron Cohen’s methods, I watched the ersatz television presenter introduce the troubles of his homeland from behind his mustache with an unexpected line reading that nearly knocked me out of my chair: “Although Kazakhstan glorious country, it have a problem, too: economic, social, and Jew.”
Though some crossed their arms and said “I don’t find that funny,” most people recognized that Baron Cohen was using his comic gifts (and nerves of diamond-encrusted steel) to expose the absurdity of anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and any other form of bigotry you could list.
Naturally, the non-actor scumbags Baron Cohen duped into saying repulsive things on camera saw it differently (and many lawsuits followed), and so did many Kazakhs. Perhaps this second group had a point. Most Americans don’t know anything about Kazakhstan, but should they ever meet someone from this central Asian nation the gut instinct might be to shout back “Great Success!” or one of Borat’s other dopey catchphrases.
There are indeed some situations in which the joke is clearly on Borat, but there is collateral damage for the greater good. In the original, think of the trio of middle-aged feminists who have to listen to Borat’s gross jokes before finally dismissing him. With the sequel, this happens when Borat decides to “end his life,” so, as he puts it, he heads to the nearest synagogue to await the next mass shooting.
Part of the reason he wants to end it all is because he’s had some of his fundamental truths destroyed. Among them: the Holocaust, one of Kazakhstan’s proudest moments (so says this satirical film), has now been proven not to exist. It says as much on Facebook. This point dovetails with the real Sacha Baron Cohen working with the ADL to end Holocaust denial on social media platforms.
Anyway, Borat then heads to a synagogue, dressed as “a Jew,” but meets with two lovely, elderly Jewish women. They are warm and caring, and, when Judith Dim Evans explains that she witnessed the concentration camps with her own eyes, Borat is “relieved.”
In what has been reported as a first for Sacha Baron Cohen, he apparently dropped the mask when the cameras stopped rolling to explain to Dim Evans his wider intention was to combat anti-Semitism. The film is, in fact, dedicated to her (she died this year), but, in an unexpected twist, there are also members of her family suing the production.
In a lengthy interview with Maureen Dowd at the New York Times, Baron Cohen explained the difference between the two movies: “In 2005 you needed a character like Borat who was misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic to get people to reveal their inner prejudices,” he said. “Now those inner prejudices are overt.”
This is most evident in the movie when Borat bunks with some QAnon conspiracy nuts who think Hillary Clinton drinks the blood of infants and that the former presidential candidate created the coronavirus. It’s not like the world is too weird for Borat now, but everything has been multiplied by a factor of 2,020.
In a way, the “Borat” movies are very sad. These people are out there among us, and they don’t seem to have a whiff of shame. But there’s the hope that this sequel will be as popular as the first. It will be available to stream for anyone who has an Amazon Prime account, which is good, because Amazon has enough money to handle the lawsuits.
If enough people watch and laugh it means that some of them, maybe young people, maybe people surrounded by bigots in their family, will allow Borat’s message to penetrate. Maybe someone who might otherwise remain ignorant will realize that racism and sexism are barbarism. Maybe Sacha Baron Cohen running around in ridiculous costumes and singing “chop ’em up like the Saudis do!” isn’t something that should be recognized by film critics, but by heads of state.
Maybe Borat will make benefit this glorious nation after all.
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