Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego returns for a Jason Woliner-directed tour through Trump’s America.
This month, stay-at-home moviegoers can watch Sacha Baron Cohen be a political prankster who delights in provoking opponents into exposing their worst sides. They can enjoy his career-best performance and marvel at the subtleties he finds in a character whose reputation has suffered from years of caricature.
Or they can watch his Borat sequel.
The actor, in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, finds the humanity, intelligence and soul under the public clowning of 1960s anti-war figure Abbie Hoffman. In his new Borat, on the other hand, he makes his signature alter ego, who was always cartoonish but once had a compelling personality, something even less coherent.
The film — whose full title is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — falls short of its imperfect but zeitgeist-grabbing 2006 predecessor in several ways. Few if any of them can be blamed on director Jason Woliner, who has done excellent work with comic performers like Brett Gelman, Patton Oswalt and Aziz Ansari. The easiest (but incomplete) answer is that the George W. Bush era needed a Borat, and the Trump years make him painfully redundant.
Borat’s early appearances on Da Ali G Show had the great advantage of being stand-alone hit jobs. If producers could get an unwitting public figure to sit down with this fictional Kazakh journalist for an interview, he could usually wrest something embarrassing out of them, whether they agreed with the terrible beliefs he espoused or were just trying to placate the lunatic before them. When they worked (and Cohen’s disguise-based stunts have always been hit or miss), it was because we believed in the prank as it was being presented.
The first Borat film, in stitching many stunts (not just one-on-one interviews, but gags involving big public groups) into one big narrative, tested the viewer’s belief in that premise often, and this one does too. More so this time, because Cohen’s shtick is so famous now that it’s hard to imagine him really finding this many targets who aren’t in on the joke. Even when he’s dressed as someone other than Borat — as he often is here, and as he was in the frustrating Showtime series Who Is America? — it’s hard to concentrate on scenes instead of focusing on what kind of manipulation was required to make the dupes play along, and how much has been distorted by editing.
(Editing is a major distraction in the film’s ballyhooed scene with Rudy Giuliani. The shaping of the sequence and its music, in service to the film’s overall plot, suggest the disgraced former mayor is trying to seduce a young woman who interviews him. But it looks like some microphone-fitting footage is being repurposed here, and if you really want to make the man look like an ass, you could just play his interview straight: “China manufactured the virus and let it out, and they deliberately spread it around the world” whereas Donald Trump, “I’d say, he saved a million lives.” But then, any news network can show us that.)
The plot, such as it is: Since making Kazakhstan a global laughing stock in the first film, Borat Sagdiyev has been sentenced to hard prison labor in his native land, scorned by his countrymen. Then Kazakhstan’s Premier Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) summons him: Nazarbayev is angry that “McDonald Trump” has been romancing every other thuggish political leader in the world and leaving him out of the party. So he wants Borat to bring a present to the American strongman, to be delivered through Vice President Mike Pence.
After some mishaps, Borat winds up on these shores with his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova). Since the 15-year-old is basically livestock to him (her feminist awakening will be the second half’s rickety narrative scaffold), Borat intends to give her to Pence, whom he believes to be a “pussy hound.” So off they go, ranging across America and getting into outrageous misunderstandings.
Borat discovers that the world has gone “calculator crazy” and gets his first cellphone, discovering internet porn as the salesman looks on. He goes to a bakery, whose proprietor cheerfully writes, “Jews will not replace us” on a chocolate cake — with smiley faces. He takes Tutar to meet an Instagram influencer who is proud to be a sugar baby, asking for help making the unkempt girl a fitting sexual bribe. (“We have to be kinda weak” to get a man, the role model sagely says.)
Cohen and seven credited co-writers jump through some hoops to justify dialogue in a scene where Borat takes Tutar to what he thinks is a doctor’s office (it’s really a pro-life crisis pregnancy center) and, in explaining what’s wrong with her, makes it sound like he has impregnated her and they need an abortion. The exchange will feel like the height of hilarity to a certain segment of the Borat fan base. But it doesn’t tell you a thing you don’t already know about the poor pastor who quashes his discomfort while insisting that any pregnancy is God’s will.
It’s already public knowledge that Borat does, in a way, reach Pence — dressed in a Trump disguise, he crashed a speech at a February CPAC gathering and was quickly given the boot. As with the Giuliani scene, the politician’s reaction to being ambushed is nowhere near as shocking as what he says of his own volition, something you’ve already seen far too many times: Standing with all the fake gravitas he can muster on the eve of the COVID-19 tragedy, Pence clenches his jaw for the audience and lies, “We’re ready. We’re ready for anything.”
Amid the other assorted tasteless gags, an extended and hard-to-believe sequence finds Borat in Washington state as lockdown hits, convincing a stranger to share his quarantine cabin. The stranger and his housemate are QAnon zombies who happily repeat idiocy about Hillary Clinton drinking the blood of children but are quick to identify Borat’s own cultural text (a misogynist handbook for raising daughters) as “a lie — a conspiracy theory.”
Some people may find that moment revelatory. They’ll likely be the same Democrats who spent October 2016 calm in the certainty that one of the most polarizing people in American politics was going to triumph over one of the worst people currently breathing. America is sick, and hurting, and angry and misinformed. If Sacha Baron Cohen were to put away the latex prosthetics, dumb accents and hairpieces, he might find a new, better way to show us our reflection — and to make us look, instead of just laughing at our neighbors’ most awkward moments.
Production company: Four by Two Films
Distributor: Amazon Studios (Available Friday, Oct. 23, on Amazon Prime)
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova, Dani Popescu
Director: Jason Woliner
Screenwriters: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman, Lee Kern
Producers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Monica Levinson, Anthony Hines
Executive producers: Buddy Enright, Nicholas Hatton, Peter Bynham, Dan Mazer, Stuart Miller
Director of photography: Luke Geissbuhler
Production designer: David Saenz De Maturana
Costume designer: Erinn Knight
Editors: James Thomas, Craig Alpert, Mike Giambra
Composer: Erran Baron Cohen
Rated R, 96 minutes