I have a vivid memory of seeing the first Borat film, my own initial exposure to Sacha Baron Cohen, with my parents at a movie theater in Savannah GA. My dad was laughing so hard during the scene where Borat and his manager run through the hotel naked, he had tears in his eyes. We’re obviously in a very different place now as a culture, socially and politically, but it’s so difficult to understate how Baron Cohen’s big breakthrough was like a stick of dynamite into pop discourse. Suddenly everybody is making “my wife!” jokes and Warren Beatty is up on stage at the Golden Globes drunkenly trying out his own Kazakh impression. It was the kind of daring, politically incorrect film that shined a light on the hypocrisy of the political establishment and prevailing norms in certain parts of the country, while also being deeply funny.
And while Baron Cohen continued to build his own prestigious acting resume, culminating into this year’s potential awards winning turn in The Trial of the Chicago 7, his returns to his ballsy roots often were hit and miss. Bruno was mostly a whiff, save for a pretty hilarious scene that underscored the latent homophobia within professional wrestling, and his Showtime series, This Is America, never really lived up to its promise – with one exception: Erran Morad, his Israeli character, who single-handedly ended the political career of one local Georgia Representative, and held court to an interview with former US Senate Candidate Roy Moore that is still one of the funniest (and ballsiest) things I’ve ever seen.
But here we are, 14 years later, and we have surprise sequel to the very film that made him a star in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (I’ll just be calling it Borat 2 from this point on). The fact that this was shot, edited, put through post, and a deal struck with a distributor, all in time for the election without anyone knowing about it before the trailer dropped is incredible. And it just brings to the fore the fact that regardless of how his own prestigious ambitions in his career as a performer have grown, Baron Cohen is still the same maverick he’s always been. It’s rather incredible, really.
Borat 2‘s story at its outset has a pretty clever inciting incident for a film: the disgraced former-third most famous journalist in Kazakhstan has been doing hard labor for the shame that he brought on his nation after the release of the previous film. Suddenly, he’s summoned by the country’s Prime Minister with a monumental task, noticing that Donald Trump is a big fan of other strong men like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, and seething with jealousy that Kazakhstan has been left out, Borat is instructed to deliver a gift of a monkey (the nation’s biggest tv star) to Vice President Mike Pence in order to garner favor with the administration. And thusly, Borat is headed back to America, this time jeered by his countrymen in the announcement. The bigger wrinkle here is that he’s joined by his daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), of whom he only learned the existence of upon leaving the country. And so, once Tutar stows away onto his newest sojourn to the US, it’s back to the usual Borat hijinks, to vacillating results.
It should be said, a big key to the original film’s success was that the story itself was pretty loose and simple, more or less just an excuse to tie together its wide-ranging vignettes, whether or not it made much sense for Borat to be going to a joke coach, for example. Borat 2, on the other hand, is driven by its plot first and foremost, and spontaneity seems to have been mostly replaced by scenes of people who are basically in on the joke, with a few exceptions. To its credit, the film does acknowledge that there’s basically no way that Borat could ever get around without being recognized, so he ends up dressed in a variety of costumes, fatsuits, beards and the like in order to hide his identity. There are smaller scenes where it clearly works, and that’s where Borat 2 recaptures the same “catching people with their pants down” energy of the first. But a lot of space is eaten up by scenes that are set-up with its on-camera participants in advance in order to get Borat where he needs to be at a given time.
There’s also a lot of narrative real estate spent on the budding relationship between Borat and Tutar, and this sideways version of “Kazakh customs” and how daughters are treated. It can be intermittently funny, such as when Borat and Tutar have to go buy her a cage to sleep in at night and it gives him a chance to reference current US immigration tactics; but in this ongoing volley of films, the weakest elements have oft been the actual character building that Baron Cohen and his fellow writers feel is necessary to keep the audience invested. And while its respective character conflict isn’t as out of the blue as Bruno, it still drags the fun down here, when really all you want to do is see Borat cause chaos.
Because, of course, when he does so, it’s still pretty spectacular. For example, there’s a pretty great sequence that sees the pair invade this year’s CPAC interrupting Mike Pence’s big address to the attendees, as well as his crashing a Coronavirus Quarantine protest that finds him singing a song that has been, I’m sad to admit, stuck in my head since I heard it (basically this film’s version of “Throw the Jew Down the Well” but is instead about chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do”). And it’s important to note, that despite much of the humor outside of the bigger stunts feeling a bit like a paler version of what came before, the ending of the film is jaw-dropping.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this. My mouth was absolutely agape at what Baron Cohen and his team capture involving another politician. While I realize things zip pretty quickly through the news landscape nowadays, I’d be shocked if we don’t end up seeing a few headlines about what happens in the last 15 minutes of this film. Borat 2 also closes with a final ending note that is more expectedly brazen, but in that “oh my god! I can’t believe he went there!” kind of way. It’s a third act you’ve got to see to believe, basically.
We often say with a lot of cinema, “it’s the journey, not the destination”, but with Borat 2, the destination is really where the biggest pleasures can be found and definitely what is still sticking with me, hours after having seen it. It genuinely misses the mark more than not, but those times it hits its intended targets with jabs (and even one potentially big knockout blow) it becomes all you remember. That may be enough.