If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that existential threats can wear the most clownish of costumes. No one knows this better than Sacha Baron Cohen. In the 2006 mockumentary “Borat,” the actor and writer introduced his most indelible character. Borat Sagdiyev, an outlandishly hateful and provocative Kazakh reporter, was a litmus test for the prejudices of President Bush’s America. Borat finally returned last month in a sequel, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” released Oct. 23 on Amazon Prime.
Watching this movie in some ways was like watching 2020 go by: it moved frenetically, it left us questioning reality and every time we thought our respect for America had hit rock-bottom, Borat handed us a shovel and said, “Keep on digging.”
Two presidents and one emerging pandemic after his first romp through America, Borat looks tired. The character’s childlike joy for the wonders of the United States has diminished. This time he’s on a mission: to gift his country’s number one porn star, a monkey named Johnny, to Mike Pence to restore Kazakhstan’s world standing. Through a series of vulgar complications, Borat arrives in America with his 15-year-old daughter Tutar — played by 24-year-old Maria Bakalova — who wants a husband to “put her in a beautiful cage.” The father-daughter duo travels across America in a desperate attempt to marry Tutar off into Trump’s inner circle. Along the way they meet leering politicians, creepy plastic surgeons and a FedEx driver who seals a teenager in a crate. The vast majority of these people were filmed entirely unscripted and without knowing why they were being filmed: despite its absurdity, or maybe because of it, Borat cuts an arrestingly real slice of America.
Borat has no rules. Full-frontal nudity, bleeding vaginas and girls in cages all feature prominently, but they somehow don’t land as shockingly as the vulgarities of the original. We’ve already accepted this icky onslaught as a conceit of Cohen’s style, and we take it all in with either a grimace or a giggle. What’s far more sickening is real-life Americans’ unscripted non-reactions to Borat’s explicit bigotry. Tutar’s revealing fertility dance gets far more eyeballs than Borat publicly dressed as a Klan member. From Rudy Giuliani making inappropriate advances on a teenage girl to a tanning salon owner who advises Borat on the darkest skin tone acceptable for a racist family, “Subsequent Moviefilm” is full of real people who don’t bat an eye at cruelty. It’s the truly disturbing undertone to the movie: that America, too, has no rules.
Cohen and Bakalova’s strength lies in their utter lack of self-consciousness. It may seem like an odd thing to say about the duo’s stomach-churning scenes, but their performances exude an irreplicable, almost virtuosic, skill. Despite their campy costumes and exaggerated accents, they’re still able to pull the wool over the eyes of nearly everyone they encounter. Filmed during the start of the pandemic, the clearly-fictional characters interact with the real world with which we’ve become so intimately acquainted the past seven months: the masks, the uncertainty, the threats against Dr. Fauci and the collision of fact and fiction were dizzying yet unerringly accurate for the current moment.
For a film that begins in an Eastern European gulag and ends with a cover of “Just the Two of Us,” it may come as a bit of a surprise that “Subsequent Moviefilm” is about a father coming to realize he cares deeply for his daughter. Earnestly sweet together, Borat and his daughter manage to find moments of genuine decency on their trek across our flailing country. In a scene that could have easily slid into excruciating territory, a distraught Borat enters a synagogue dressed as a ridiculously anti-Semitic caricature of a Jewish person. He is met by Judith and Doris, two survivors of the Holocaust who listen to him with astonishing empathy. Cohen ultimately revealed his identity to Judith after the scene was shot and dedicated the film to her following her passing. Later, the unexpected, apolitical sweetness of a group of conservative women allows Tutar to realize her own potential beyond a future husband and fundamentally alters the course of the film. Throughout the film, real-life people respond to Borat and Tutar’s cartoonish struggles with curiosity and compassion rather than outright disgust.
Americans’ tolerance for stunning displays of hatred cast a dark shadow over the movie and our visions of the nation, particularly from the viewpoints of a South Asian and a Jewish writer, respectively. But Cohen offers the option of hope. “Subsequent Moviefilm” ends with Borat’s newfound love for his daughter, a respect for science and a plea for his U.S. viewers to remain civically engaged. If Cohen has done his job, we may not need another Borat film to shake us out of apathy in 14 years.