A query like “What does Borat mean in 2020?” feels so unnecessarily self-serious that this line of thinking ought to be punctured by someone kicking down the door of my apartment and blurting out “MAH WIFE.” But when it was revealed in the beginning of October that Sacha Baron Cohen made a stealth Borat sequel that would be released on Amazon Prime prior to the election, a couple of red flags popped up that unfortunately prevented me from being very excite. (Don’t worry, I’ve filled my Borat pun quota for the day—NOT!)
First: How would a sequel live up to the inimitable Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the 2006 masterpiece of trickster performance art. (Borat was also—though I’m not fact-checking this—the first time an actor has won a Golden Globe for a role in a movie in which his naked costar sat on his face before they wrestled naked in the middle of a hotel banquet.) Then there was the more important concern that Borat’s shtick just wouldn’t be as effective the second time of asking. Not only is Cohen’s character now widely recognized, but Borat’s greatest gift—Trojan Horse-ing Americans into revealing their xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of blatant cruelty—wouldn’t seem so shocking in 2020.
Emboldened by the current administration, certain Americans wear their prejudices like a badge of honor. Cohen already tried to satirize the Trump era in his 2018 Showtime miniseries Who Is America?, but the results were mixed, at best. GOP operatives willingly playing along with a plan to arm kindergarteners, Dick Cheney signing a waterboarding kit, and a backwater town in Arizona freaking out because a liberal Cohen persona wanted to revitalize their economy by building a mosque to attract Middle Eastern tourists didn’t expose anything new as much as reaffirm that the horrors of reality have become satire-proof.
But in Borat the pranking was a bit more even-handed. Of course, Cohen’s main objective was deriding America’s post-9/11 jingoism—and he got in some very good licks, like getting a rodeo crowd to cheer on the country’s “war of terror” and spilling Iraqi blood. But he also trolled feminists, an old Jewish couple running a bed and breakfast … also, the film culminated in Borat trying to kidnap an admirably game Pamela Anderson. Borat wasn’t an activist film as much as an exercise in chaos with some activism sprinkled in. By contrast, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is more overtly and urgently political, going so far as to end with a caption that says, “NOW VOTE, OR YOU WILL BE EXECUTE.”
Cohen, who is intensely private and rarely sits down for interviews—unless he gets to do them as one of his personas—has not shied away from the gravity of the upcoming election, telling The New York Times this month that he believes Trump getting a second term would turn America into a “democracy in name only.” It’s certainly within that context that Subsequent Moviefilm exists, and also why the sequel has a fascinating identity crisis. While the movie has some trademark Borat shenanigans—an early scene in which a disguised Borat learns about the wonders of smartphones is too good to spoil—Cohen is also quick to puncture the film’s narrative to openly mock conservatives. It’s easier to explain why Cohen would walk through the doors of the annual CPAC convention in full KKK garb or get anti-mask activists to chant about chopping up journalists “like the Saudis do” than it is to explain why an ostensible TV reporter from Kazakhstan would do so.
This might bother anyone who, for some reason, cares about the internal logic of the film, but it’s what helps Subsequent Moviefilm avoid being a total retread of its predecessor. The other X factor is the character who joins Borat on his return to America. Replacing Ken Davitian’s Azamat—don’t worry, you’ll find out what becomes of him—is Borat’s teenage daughter Tutar, played by Maria Bakalova. Tutar sneaks into a crate housing a famed Kazakh monkey that was supposed to be presented, by Borat, as a bribe to Mike Pence to restore the country’s reputation. (Borat’s documentary turned Kazakhstan into a laughingstock, and he’s spent all this time laboring away in a gulag as punishment.) But after Tutar eats said monkey during her time in the crate, much of the film then centers on Borat’s improvised plan to present his 15-year-old daughter as a child bride, first to noted ladies man Pence, and later to Rudy Giuliani. (You’ve probably seen some stories about just how that went for New York’s former mayor.)
While Borat exposed plenty of ugly American prejudice 14 years ago, Tutar is a character fine-tuned to reveal the utter creepiness of men—to an extent that just wasn’t possible with the Borat persona because, well, he isn’t a teenage girl. After Tutar gets a makeover and a blond dye job, multiple parents at a Southern debutante ball gawk at her—one of whom tells Borat she’d be worth $500. A plastic surgeon, when he isn’t making anti-Semitic comments about noses, said he’d have sex with Tutar if her father wasn’t presently in the room. And a dude who laughs and high-fives Borat after he jokes about border detainees being put in cages does, naturally, sell him a cage in which to house his daughter. (In fictional Kazakhstan, married women get their own cages; Tutar hopes she will one day live in a fancy golden cage to rival that of Melania Trump.)
Bakalova is, quite simply, a revelation. She doesn’t just go along with Cohen’s antics, but proves herself to be just as quick-witted by carrying several scenes on her own in a full-on character arc—one in which Tutar realizes women in the United States have a lot more agency than is permitted in Kazakhstan’s official “daughter owner’s manual.” It’s bizarrely moving, in part because Bakalova sells Tutar’s journey of self-discovery so well. And that’s before we get to all the moments when the actress fearlessly puts herself in rooms with leering men. Put it this way: If Cohen could get a Golden Globe for a movie in which Ken Davitian’s naked ass sat on his face, Bakalova deserves a goddamn Oscar for the lengths she went to in order to (hopefully) tank Giuliani’s political career.
Borat was and remains an unassailable comedic triumph; timeless and endlessly quotable in equal measure. But Subsequent Moviefilm is a worthy sequel, and one made with a comparatively short shelf life in mind. If Borat is the type of film that will remain rewatchable for decades—I was so glad to have an excuse to revisit the movie this week; obviously it holds up—Subsequent Moviefilm is more akin to an election special. In his own unique and troll-y way, Cohen is rebuking fascism, social media companies that spread misinformation like wildfire, and, toward the end of Borat and Tutar’s journey, the dangers of an administration ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. This won’t be a movie we’ll be keen to revisit in 10 or 20 years, but Sacha Baron Cohen succeeded in making a Borat that could mean something in 2020. And for that alone, the sequel is a great success!