So it’s about … does the plot matter? It’s Borat.
And the full title of this sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, does sort of say it all. It’s been 14 years since Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) made his way to the U.S. and went ham on American values, accidentally smashing over $400 worth of Confederate trinkets, carrying a bag of poop into a polite etiquette dinner, and saying, in a gun shop, “Come on, make my day, Jew,” just like his hero “Dirty Harold.”
2006 was … how many lifetimes ago? It’s an eternity in the current media and political climate. And for Borat Sagdiyev, it’s personally been quite a stretch. He’s had multiple kids. He’s become a world celebrity in real life and in mockufiction. He’s become the embarrassment of his home land of Kazakhstan, however, and in this new movie — one we maybe didn’t see coming, but which the current moment has made nearly impossible to avoid — Borat’s got some making up to do.
His mission — he has no choice but to accept it — it to put country back on the map by making amends with the U.S. of A.: a “sexy gift” for someone in the Trump administration, specifically for “the Vice Pussy-Grabber” Mike Pence. It was supposed to be a sexy monkey. Let’s just say the primate succumbs to the difficulties of long international travel. Aren’t we all thankful, then, that Borat has a soon-to-be-beautiful young daughter? And also a honeypot trap in the making for a nation that is, one would like to presume, too smart for such tricks.
Well. Things have changed a bit. For one, the original Borat was an international hit, which means that in 2020, the character is recognizable on the street — so much so that Cohen, who now joins the esteemed ranks of Jay-Z, Steven Soderbergh, and other reverse-retirees of recent years — once tried to leave the character behind. Not only is he back, but he’s better. In place of his old companion Azamat, we get Borat’s daughter, Tutar Sagdiyev (Maria Bakalova), who’d prefer to be known as Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiyev, please and thank you.
Oh, the adventures, the hilarities, the calamities that ensue. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is of the same mold as its predecessor, which now feels almost painfully prescient in its politics. You could release it today and it would feel like a dispatch from this wretched moment. The magic act that Cohen, the great Bakalova, director Jason Woliner, and their team of writers pull off is to push this absurd premise even further into the present. How contemporary is the new movie? One of the movie’s key gags takes place at a CPAC convention at which Pence says that the U.S. only has, as of that moment, 15 cases of the coronavirus. Over the course of the movie, we start to see people wearing masks and asking for distance, or engaging in full-blown Covid denialism. Take your pick.
So by recent history, we mean current history; by current history, we mean practically live and in living color. We get Pence and Rudy Guiliani (more on him in a second); we get instagrammer Macey Chanel giving lessons on how to be a sugar baby. We get a casually plausible demonstration of how someone might infiltrate the current US administration and wreak havoc. And we get a reminder that Cohen is one of the few comedians working today who could have pulled this off, as well as one of the few who can still make us wonder how he did it.
But here’s where we should pat ourselves on the back a little — or maybe not. Because where would Borat be without the rest of us? In the first movie, it was the straightforwardness with which this “foreigner” asked a gun seller what piece would be best for defending himself against Jews — and the frankness with which the gun seller gave him an answer. It was a group of white frat boys saying minorities had all the power in this country, and you know what? We need slavery. Ladies and gentlemen: the early aughts.
In the new Borat, those gags are evoked, even outdone, by fresh ones: a makeup stylist advising our heroic pair on which dye job would best suit a racist family. A boutique dress retailer picking out a dress that screams “No means yes.” A cosmetic surgeon who’s only too happy, or at least not as wary as you’d hope, to mime the contours of a Jewish nose. These gags are obviously charged. They’re also about everything they appear to be about: the subtext is text, even in the moment Borat requests to get “Jews Will Not Replace Us” written on cake. How much do you want to bet that no one asks questions? How much do you want to bet that a pastor, working as an anti-abortionist, hears that Borat’s daughter is pregnant with Borat’s child and doesn’t condemn it? Jesus, he reassures them (and us) doesn’t make mistakes. Good American Christians do not judge.
It’s all taboo. It’s all impossible. It cannot, despite certain recent efforts at damage control, be explained away by editing. Borat, the character, is a complete comic grotesque: mock-exotic and foreign-seeming, unexpectedly hairy, laden with hilarious catch phrases, odd values and a bag of pubic hair in his pocket. But the joke has always been on that curious melange of American values: a level of ignorance that makes us susceptible to anything and a level of politeness, particularly Southern politeness, that greases the wheels on that ignorance.
Except it’s 2020. Ours is a post-Borat, social media-addled world with cameras everywhere, and decades of reality TV tropes pulsing through our veins. It’s also a world in which, on the ignorance front, the conspiracy travels all the way to the top. You would hope we were all a little but wiser by now. But Cohen is a master, truly a genius, of irony. There’s a spin here on Holocaust denialism which, for all the ways the joke has been getting set up since 2006, nevertheless earns its belly laughs and its sharp, satirical bite. You emerge from the movie riddled with teeth marks, wanting to spoil it all (the synagogue scene! the toilet birth! the iPhone porn!), but let’s not. What can be said is that it’s all here: COVID, #pizzagate conspiracies (“Hilary Clinton drink the blood of children?”), Jeffrey Epstein — all of it. A psychotic tangle of headlines and political dilemmas as impenetrable as a clump of extension cords that we all can’t help but trip over.
The thrill of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm isn’t just that it takes on the Trump administration, or more pointedly, America under Trump. The thrill is in how smoothly, how improbably, Cohen and his collaborators have engineered it all. The question at the end of both Borat films isn’t only how Cohen pulled it off, but, truly, how did Cohen survive it? How did no one kick his ass?
Maybe they did and we just don’t see it. Certainly, as of this week, people will want to. The image of Rudy Guiliani putting his hand down his pants in front of a young woman has already gone viral. This being Borat, you can rightly assume that it’s hardly the only punchline in this scene. Cohen and his creation keep punching, and punching, and punching, until America’s kidneys are properly battered. It’s the high-wire act that makes the movie so good — the dangers Cohen dives into headfirst, against all better judgement. It’s the uncanny efficiency of every his every blow. And its final hit, the summarizing gag? A knockout. Out of the park. You can’t have seen it coming. The joke is that you should have.