It feels weird to admit to weeping with hilarity upon my first viewing of Borat. It feels even weirder to admit to weeping with hilarity specifically during the moment where a naked Borat and his equally nude sidekick Azamat decide to wrestle and run through a hotel lobby in what seemed like some violent misinterpretation of the Kama Sutra. It’s an image seared into the deepest cognitive pathways of my brain for all the wrong reasons, and may even rank among the most iconic scenes I’ve ever seen depicted on film, though I will refrain from calling it artistry.
To summon tears of laughter while watching racist, misogynistic, homophobic and antisemitic material in today’s society feels somewhat uncomfortable. People who don’t find Borat funny don’t understand the ingenuity behind his creation. Borat’s beauty (dare I call it that) lies in being able to craft a duality that makes you cackle uncontrollably on the one hand, and then on the other suffer a phase of extreme self-awareness as you debate the appropriateness of what you’ve just laughed at. In our current socio-political landscape of morality and hypersensitivity, watching one man wreak havoc upon the hypocrisy of society is liberating to witness, making the first Borat innovative in ways that are yet to be rivalled. It redefined approaches to comedy, mockumentary, method acting and political satire, all while giving us one of the most quotable characters in cinematic history. The closest we’ve come to this calibre of outlandish bravery in recent years has perhaps been Ricky Gervais targeting the Hollywood elite with comments about Epstein and Weinstein at the Golden Globes, but Sacha Baron Cohen set the bar unattainably high when Borat first made release in 2006.
Subsequent Moviefilm is a different beast. The first thing to note about the sequel is that there is a proper plot. It feels like a film with a story, but Borat is at his best when he’s put in real life situations that are compromising and exposing. The fact that this film commits to the relationship between Borat and his daughter results in moments of fictional compassion and empathy that are somewhat contradictory to the real world application of the character. It’s unexpectedly a more sincere film than its precursor; It develops character arcs, it attempts to be more than just a sequence of gags at the expense of the unsuspecting public, but perhaps it invests more in Borat’s fictional existence than audiences are willing to.
Humour wise, nothing was ever going to top the sheer novelty of the first film. There are obvious limitations to Borat now that he is a global, infamous name. This film shows people recognising him in the street and asking for autographs, forcing Borat to don disguises so that he can migrate across the US and A unmolested. As a result there are moments when it feels like Cohan’s show Who Is America, which also saw him don various disguises and prosthetics to cleverly bait out politicians like Dick Cheney and Bernie Sanders. Subsequent Moviefilm is less distinctly a Borat movie because of this, and feels more like a combination of Cohen’s other projects.
Enter Borat’s daughter Tutar, the new MVP. Maria Bakalova does a supreme job going toe to toe with Cohen in delivering the film’s most outrageous sequences. Tutar is blessed with the anonymity that is now denied to Borat, so she’s a real asset, selling the cons that take place with an innocently oblivious and blamelessly misguided performance. The final half hour is where the sequel comes into its own, reverting back to it’s tried and tested formula of putting these characters into controversial situations and exposing the ideologies of western society as they really exist. The final twist tying Borat, politics and coronavirus together is just comedic perfection, the ideal marriage between fiction and reality that makes this character iconic, reminding us that despite his character growth, he’s still as much of an oblivious tool as he is a political one.
Deciding to include a more neutral portrayal of the American population and showing some of the human decency that exists is a bold move, because while it presents a balanced and more informed response to Borat’s western cluelessness, the result is also tamer and less funny. It’s still some of the most daring comedy out there in film and television, but the more narrative-based story means there are more scripted and staged scenes that run the risk of being a bit too heavily dispersed throughout.
It says a lot that the only competition to truly measure the film against is it’s own predecessor, and to fall a little short of its own standards is no terrible thing. We need films like this, comedy and satire that feels unrestrained while commentating on the failed world we live in. Nothing comes close to Sacha Baron Cohen’s radical commitment to his characters, and the simple fact that I have reached the end of this article without dropping some iconic Borat vocabulary feels like a conscious effort, and is testament to the enduring legacy that it will continue to maintain. So forgive me then, for concluding that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a more politically charged film than its precursor, that it’s still uncomfortably daring in the lengths it goes to and that I don’t think any other performer has the ‘hram’ to go out there and do what Cohen does.