Published Oct 23, 2020They said that Donald Trump's presidency would be good for pop culture, and while we hopefully only have to endure it for a few more months, there's no denying that nothing anyone could write has ever lived up to the pitch-black comedy he's caused to unfold in real life around us at any given time. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, the undercover prankster whose supremely subversive satire has been untouchable for decades, has had mixed results trying to make waves in the Trumpian age with projects like (the vastly superior) Who Is America? and now, a rushed and decidedly clumsy new Borat movie.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was initially reported to be titled Borat: Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premiere Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan, and that mouthful still makes the final cut in this flick as Borat returns to America in an attempt to win over the approval of VP Mike Pence via an incredibly harebrained scheme. He's joined by his daughter Tutar Sagdiyev (newcomer Maria Bakalova), who eventually becomes the child bride intended for a high-ranking member of the Republican Party.
That's a dark enough concept for a contemporary Cohen film, to be sure, but it quickly starts to feel like a pandering late-night sketch when we hear Borat's omnipresent voice peppered with cringily topical phrases. He refers to Pence as the "Vice Pussy Grabber" and makes stale MAGA references that are already almost as stale as Borat impressions themselves in contemporary culture. Worse yet, this is supposedly another half-real prank documentary but it somehow has way too much plot as Borat and Tutar justify their characters' actions with elaborate, elongated expositions that overshadow the throwaway schoolyard sex jokes in any given scene.
To be clear, there are still some truly inspired moments, particularly in the subtleties of the project. For example, an unsuspecting old man who runs a copy shop in rural Texas gets much more than he bargained for when Borat opts to use his fax service like an iPhone, sending tedious one-word messages like "Sup" via fax. The back-and-forth exchange is simply hilarious (when it's not overrun by the need to move the plot forward), as is a scene when Borat cuts an old Southern man's hair with some sheep shears. These scenes — the ones where a joke occurs that doesn't involve parroting the same buzz words from every late-night TV writers' room — are few and far between.
Instead, the real stars of the film are its headline-grabbing moments where Cohen and director Jason Woliner (Human Giant, Nathan for You) really swing for the fences. These include scenes where Mike Pence looks on in disgust as Cohen, as Borat but in a Trump costume, carries Tutar into a Republican convention and, perhaps even more sinister, a scene where Rudy Giuliani appears to begin to undress while alone with Tutar in a hotel room. Giuliani has since claimed he was victim to some cruel editing, and he's probably half-right, although he still comes off as incredibly skeezy before he starts fumbling around his undies.
But that points to the main issue about Borat and the other comedies that have used unsuspecting bystanders as pawns in its wake. To engage in this antagonism requires a degree of uncaring sociopathy that stops making sense when you attempt to inject a moral compass into your work. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was hastily shot during the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to be released before the American election, and its agenda is as crystal clear as the clumsily obscured thesis statement laid out at the end, when Borat says, "Now vote or you will be execute." Whether or not its just overly topical or downright neoliberal propaganda is up to the viewer, but there's a preachy undercurrent that doesn't sit well when we've just watched Borat mock the misguided QAnon conspiracy theorists that still offered to house him for multiple days during quarantine on a whim.
Then there's the added irony that this movie was purchased by Amazon Prime Video for an undoubtedly enormous sum, utilizing funds that the company made from its notoriously anti-labour business practices that have included alleged union-busting and inhumane working conditions, with some warehouse workers reportedly urinating in bottles because they were disallowed bathroom breaks on the job. In the film, Cohen makes it clear that he's against big tech's spread of fake news via Facebook, although he's working for a no-less problematic organization to get the word out. It's these moments, where he reveals a somewhat preachy agenda behind the mayhem, that he suggests his ability to subvert has gone dull.
Then again, pointing out hypocrisy is just about the easiest thing to do in this day and age, which is both the film and this review's weakest point. What really matters is whether or not it's any good as a comedy. Ultimately, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a reminder that real life is still sadly the funniest mockumentary around. (Amazon Prime)