The Borat sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was released last night on Amazon Prime, a few hours earlier than announced, to coincide with the Presidential debate.
The moviefilm is not as edgy or tightly-constructed as other Sacha Baron Cohen productions and paradoxically does not feel as if it has as much on the line. This is odd, given our societal conflict, and how Cohen increasingly risks his physical safety every time he heads out to give people opportunities to say something stupid.
“By getting people to reveal what they really believe, I have at times exposed the ignorance, bigotry and conspiratorial delusions that often lurk just below the surface of our modern lives,” he wrote recently in Time.
“While filming my latest Borat film, I showed up as a right-wing singer at a gun-rights rally in Washington State. When organizers finally stormed the stage, I rushed to a nearby get-away vehicle. An angry crowd blocked our way and started pounding on the vehicle with their fists. Under my overalls, I was wearing a bulletproof vest, but it felt inadequate with some people outside toting semiautomatic weapons. When someone ripped open the door to drag me out, I used my entire body weight to pull the door back shut until our vehicle maneuvered free.”
It has been 15 years since his first Borat film, which was released in the middle of the George W. Bush presidency. Doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago?
“In 2005, you needed a character like Borat who was misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic to get people to reveal their inner prejudices,” Cohen told Maureen Dowd at the Times. “Now those inner prejudices are overt. Racists are proud of being racists.’’
“My aim [in the sequel] was not to expose racism and anti-Semitism,” he said. “The aim is to make people laugh, but we reveal the dangerous slide to authoritarianism.”
I do not think the films hits either laughs or warnings against authoritarianism squarely on the head. If anything, it feels as if Cohen is not as interested in this sort of satire now. Last year he spoke (very seriously) at the Anti-Defamation League’s summit, and his most recent film role was Abbie Hoffman, in The Trial of the Chicago 7. He was great at both.
The sequel feels…gentler in its treatment of its subjects, if that makes any sense, when the plot line is that Borat is trying to gift his “15-year old” daughter to Mike Pence, Vice Pussy-Grabber, as Borat puts it. The daughter is played by 24-year old Maria Bakalova, a Bulgarian actress. She is given so much screen time that it almost seems Cohen is handing off his role. She does not yet have the timing or quick wit to make the most of every scene, as Cohen can.
But here, I think, is what most viewers seem to have missed so far: Women are the stars of this sequel. You will have seen the furor over Cohen and company tricking Rudy Giuliani into a fake interview, conducted by Bakalova, that ends with compromising video. Imagine the courage of a very young foreign national facing down Giuliani and the entire Trump state, for this bit.
What is even more interesting is two other women, not actresses, shown to be helpful, compassionate, and wise—not qualities typically found in these films. Borat enters a Temple at one point, dressed in the most vile stereotypes of Jewishness. The setup is that he hopes to commit suicide by going in where they will drink his blood. It would be useful to know the context of what went on behind the scenes to get an older woman sitting in the pews to act as she does, but in any case she speaks to him compassionately, “educates” him, reassures him, and kisses his face.
Elsewhere in the film, a middle-aged woman asked to “babysit” Borat’s daughter speaks truthfully to her about women living their own lives, free of men’s control, and appreciating their bodies as they are, without plastic surgery. Later she firmly corrects Borat’s attitudes.
In both cases Cohen—the writer and producer as well as actor—seems genuinely thankful, behind his character, for people who act sanely and kindly. (Of course he also cracks jokes at the end of each segment. When the older lady says, hugging him, “Let’s make love, not war,” he replies, “One step at a time, Cutie.” He asks the babysitter, who has talked him into conscience, “Will you be my new Black wife?” “No, sir, I cannot be your new Black wife,” says the woman, who is done with him.)
Even the women in a Republican gathering are shown to be supportive and respectful to the fake Kazakh daughter, and tactful when she commits obscenities. They order her an Uber when it is time for her to leave.
All this contrasts in the film with men with guns, a man with a Nazi salute, two men spouting QAnon nonsense, and men who discuss buying or having sex with Borat’s underage daughter.
Of course, it is a Borat film, so we also get a woman in a bakery who agrees without a blink to write “Jews will not replace us” on a cake, and a female influencer who advises the daughter that women are meant to seem weak. Sacha Baron Cohen is our Flaubert, savagely pointing out hypocrisies and stupidity wherever they appear, and delighting especially in puncturing the pretensions of the American bourgeoisie.
The sequel, in its softer attitude, has what passes for a relatively genuine happy ending, based in feminism. But in the closing shot, at the provincial festival back in “Kazakhstan,” where they once held the “Running of the Jews”—think Pamplona with anti-Semitic Carnival heads—they now have the “Running of the Americans.” A cartoonish festival “Karen” pretends to shoot a cartoonish, inflatable Dr. Fauci with her AR-15, and he falls. The crowd waves and waves and smiles.