14 Years Later, A New America Brings Out Borat's Heart
The first Borat emerged at the precipice of a new America. Two years before a generation of Americans saw their savings wiped out by the 2008 financial crisis. Four years before the Republican party redefined itself through the tea party wave of 2010. Untold years before America would sprout an almighty Extremely Online population. In short, Borat emerged at a time when people kept their incendiary thoughts to themselves - or at least, that’s what most of us believed. And for that reason, Borat worked.
Borat himself hasn’t changed much, but he arrives at a time when it’s no longer galling to see outright racism pervading our every-day lives. It does not flabbergast us to see anti-semitism up close and personal. And I cannot believe I am writing these words, but it doesn’t even shock us to see the personal attorney to the President of the United States sexually harass - and seem to prepare himself for sexual relations - with a young woman who the film has led us to believe is 15 years old (she was 24 when the film was shot, though this knowledge hardly makes Giuliani’s actions any better). Borat 2 has a number of sequences that may leave you gasping for air through snorts of laughter, but none that will leave you gasping in true bewilderment. That’s not a criticism of the film; it’s an indictment of the United States.
Borat 2 (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) follows the newly emerged funny-man on a mission to restore the integrity of Kazakhstan by wedding his 15-year-old daughter (a revelatory Maria Bakalova) to Vice President Mike Pence. As with the original, you don’t need to know much more - the plot is a loose framework intended to guide Sacha Baron Cohen’s hijinks, and at times even feels like it was cobbled together after-the-fact based on the best footage Cohen and crew were able to assemble.
Where the sequel can barely match the stunt-based brashness of its predecessor, there’s something refreshing about a film that tackles the frustrations of the Trump era head-on. After four years of movies that beat around the Bush (pun intended), Borat 2 doesn’t bother with vague allusions to Donald Trump and his Republican cronies. In the recent documentary Hopper/Welles, shot in the early 1970s, actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper tells legendary director Orson Welles that he doesn’t think there’s anything as powerful as movies. “What have they ever done?” retorts Welles. The Citizen Kane auteur goes on to clarify that no movie ever changed the world, and that “social message” movies are the most ineffective type of cinema. I don’t know that Borat 2 will have much of an impact on the world, but I do know that its blatant frustration for a country that has toppled over the edge offered a much-needed catharsis for at least one viewer.
Borat 2 also sprinkles in the expected supplement of jokes (Justin Trudeau is particularly well-skewered), plays well on the man’s explosion in notoriety over the last 14 years, and adds a heavy dose of sentiment that was absent in the original. Bakalova walks a fine line between vulgarity and pathos, dragging Baron Cohen along with her into a feminist family drama nestled within the broad comedy. At many points, the movie within works better than the one we all showed up to see.
Credit also has to be given to Baron Cohen and the phenomenal crew for switching gears as COVID-19 ravaged the country. The film rearranged rather than replaced its DNA, adding a fairly stunning singalong sequence and a madcap finale that acknowledges the new reality without feeling trapped by it. And then there’s Rudy. The social media kerfuffle over the indecency of America’s Mayor is surely less punishment than Giuliani deserves, and hopefully a fraction of what he’ll get. That is, of course, if Orson Welles is wrong about the impact of “social message” movies. Let’s hope so.