The more heavily-scripted sequel contains flashes of brilliance but ultimately fails to offer anything new.
Forgive the blinding obviousness of this statement, but a lot has changed in America since 2006, and I don’t just mean our downward spiral into a proto-fascist hellstate. In terms of pop culture the America of 2020 exists in a post-The Office, post-YouTube media ecosystem. The man-on-the-street style of cringe comedy Sacha Baron Cohen’s hit film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, helped propel to the mainstream has since become a staple of viral comedy in the social media age. Similarly, the rise of the single-camera sitcom with its cinema verité, looks-at-camera humor has taken much of the shine off of the original Borat formula. Indeed the incredible success of Borat in America — where the exclamation “mai waaaaif!” has been permanently embedded in the Millennial lexicon and every Halloween store carries a “Stupid Foreign Reporter” costume — served to effectively kill off the character. You can’t trick people into submitting to a fake interview when they’ve seen the interviewer’s face plastered on busses and TV ads. Which is likely the reason the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, mixes more scripted scenes in with its trademark unscripted pranks. It’s a decision that infuses the film with a more emotional core than the original but also reduces it to just another face in a now-crowded landscape of scripted single-camera comedy.
The new film finds Borat, the misogynistic and antisemitic television presenter with a penchant for revealing undergarments, returning to his home village in Kazakhstan after serving a 14-year sentence in a gulag-style chain gang. Upon arrival he discovers his only remaining possessions are some livestock: a few pigs, a cow, and his daughter Tutar (played by actress and model Maria Bakalova) who, to Borat’s dismay, has not yet been sold off to a husband despite having reached the ancient age of fifteen (Bakalova’s real age is 24). Soon after, Borat is tasked by the Kazakh government to offer a bribe — a celebrity chimpanzee porn star — to Vice President Mike Pence in order to ingratiate the nation with President Trump. Upon arrival in the U.S. Borat is dismayed to find that his daughter has stowed away in the crate meant for the chimp, and decides that Tutar will serve as a suitable replacement bribe. The core of the film is dedicated to transforming Tutar — who sleeps in a cage on a pile of straw — into the Republican ideal of womanhood (the fact that a post-makeover Tutar bears an uncanny resemblance to Tiffany Trump is likely not lost on the filmmakers). Tutar herself is thrilled with the plan and dreams of upgrading her humble cage to a gilded one to be more like her idol, Melania Trump.
Misogyny is a central focus of the sequel, and Baron Cohen has stated that one of his intentions with the film was “to be a reminder to [conservative] women of who they’re voting for.” The naïveté of this statement encapsulates what makes Borat Subsequent Moviefilm an ultimately underwhelming and ineffectual film. The idea that if conservatives could simply be shown the true nature of the politicians who represent them that surely — surely! — they will realize how wrong they’ve been and withdraw their support of Trump and his ilk. But of course the reality is that Trump’s conservative base knows exactly what kind of people they’ve enabled, and if four years of indictments, scandals, fraud, graft, and federal investigations haven’t changed their minds, a new Borat movie certainly won’t.
One of the more surprising aspects of the film is that they are still somehow able to find people to interview who don’t know who Borat is (mostly residents of the deep South), including a pair of QAnon conspiracy theorists who invited Baron Cohen-as-Borat to stay in their home for five days in March during the coronavirus lockdown. It’s an unintentional nod to how the echo chambers social media has helped us build around ourselves can block out even the most mainstream pop culture (though since the Borat film is notorious for poking fun at American racists, misogynists, and antisemites, there’s a good chance it has been flagged amongst the right as liberal propaganda). As such Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, like the original, will likely be watched mostly by left-wing viewers looking to re-enforce their own worldview. Unsurprisingly, the film indeed confirms much of what is already known about conservative America.
The central character arc of the film is Tutar realizing the misogynist propaganda she and her father have been indoctrinated with — women’s brains can’t handle complex tasks like driving, you will be eaten by your own vagina if you dare touch it — are falsehoods. Most of the unscripted segments go about like you’d expect — a self-described influencer gives Tutar tips on how to be the ideal trophy wife to an older man (“you want to be more submissive”), a plastic surgeon confirms he’d be willing to have sex with Tutar if her father wasn’t present, etc.
Despite Amazon’s viral marketing, the highpoint of the film turns out not to be Tutar’s meeting with a very handsy Rudy Giuliani, but a visit to a South Carolina “women’s health center” AKA an anti-abortion clinic. The bit’s ingenious setup is that Tutar has accidentally swallowed a plastic cake-topper in the shape of a baby, and they visit the clinic in the hopes of “taking the baby out.” The gag becomes increasingly absurd as the anti-abortion pastor they’re consulting tries to convince the pair that the “baby” is alive and “taking it out” would be murder, while a confused Borat and Tutar insist, quite accurately, that it is not. Borat’s role in “putting the baby inside of” his daughter adds an additional, darker layer of comedy to the already perfectly-conceived bit.
As with the previous film Baron Cohen and his crew are generally pretty careful about choosing their targets, focusing mostly on some combination of white, male, or privileged subjects. The original film employed Black actress Luenell as Borat’s love interest, and again a Black woman plays a significant role in the sequel. However this time around she is not an actress but a real-life professional babysitter named Jeanise Jones who helps deprogram Tutar from the misogynist brainwashing of her childhood and ultimately helps Borat overcome his own misogyny. The film’s intention is to position Jones as a strong, plain-spoken influence over these ignorant foreigners, but framing her this way places the burden of anti-misogynist education on a Black woman’s shoulders. It’s a burden Black women have too often been asked to carry through their depiction in media as unflappably and one-sidedly “strong” while simultaneously being the victims of virulent misogyny themselves. It’s a misguided decision that does more harm than good in a film ostensibly targeted towards white women.
Ultimately, the film’s scripted content ends up being more interesting than most of the unscripted interviews/pranks, and indeed more welcome to a weary American viewer by now more than accustomed to (and spiritually exhausted by) videos of ignorant fools openly flouting their racism. A clever twist-ending takes a final jab at the conspiracy theorist ecosystem infesting the heart of the modern conservative movement, but ultimately Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is just another piece of kindling thrown on the raging house fire that is America in 2020. It will change no minds because seriously, how many people are still undecided at this point? Conservatives will eschew it for its left-wing bias, and leftists will groan and roll their eyes at yet more examples of the criminally misguided and malevolent individuals propping up American conservatism. In 2006 Borat exposed a small corner of the rot that would ultimately overwhelm American society, but in 2020 we don’t need Borat anymore. America doesn’t need a racist, antisemitic, misogynist buffoon to expose the withered husk our democracy has become, we have President Trump for that.