Sacha Baron Cohen’s crowning achievement was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), a spoof documentary that grossed an incredible $262M at the worldwide box office and is frequently hailed as one of this century’s funniest films. It helped that nobody else was doing what Borat did by merging reality and fiction together, and it was the perfect distillation of everything Cohen perfected on TV with Da Ali G Show (2000-04).
A follow-up starring his gay Austrian fashion reporter character, Brüno (2009), didn’t make as much money (although $138M isn’t to be sniffed at), but since then Cohen’s struggled to make the same impact in less improvisational comedies (Grimsby) and serious roles. However, 2018’s return to the mockumentary format for Showtime, Who is America?, was a welcome one, and now he returns to Borat for a surprise sequel.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (hereafter known as Borat 2), embraces the challenge of making a second mockumentary now much of the population know who Borat is. There’s a scene when Borat sees a knock-off costume of himself in a shop, and people in the street are shouting his name and trying to take selfies.
How Borat 2 gets around this problem works surprising well. There’s more of a reliance on scripted interludes this time, which does mean less interviews and hidden camera pranks. But there are still a surprising number of Americans who’ve been living under a rock, so interactions with Borat on camera with real people are still possible… just less frequent. (A recurring one is Borat’s trips to use a shopkeeper’s fax machine for idle text-like conversations with his country’s leader.) However, more often than not, Borat now has to go undercover in various disguises, which does make it feel like Cohen is playing other types of foreign racists and bigots… and not Borat so much. The balance between a scripted narrative and improvised encounters is therefore different, if no less funny.
The biggest change to the sequel is the fact it’s more of a two-hander between Sacha Baron Cohen and unknown 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, who plays his 15-year-old daughter Tutar. A lot of the set-pieces involve Tutar, as she’s able to interact with people without getting recognised, but her presence also gives Borat 2 more narrative complexity than its forebear. There’s a touching arc of Borat realising his feral daughter’s an equal with a mind of her own, and Tutar herself has positive moments of change and growth around real Americans concerned about her treatment. One highlight is a sincere black woman who’s horrified to read Tutar’s storybook about a girl being eaten by own vagina after daring to touch it. Seeing her try to open Tutar’s mind to the possibility her father’s oppressing her is quite sweet and interesting to see play out.
One difference with this sequel and the original is how the stunts often reveal the goodheartedness of its marks, whereas Borat usually resulted in reasonable looking people dropping their guard to reveal darker thoughts. Even some of the more objectionable people (like two redneck Republicans who take Borat into their home), become surprisingly good friends to this ridiculous immigrant who swats the COVID-19 virus around their home using a frying pan. It’s an eye-opening look into how ordinary people have been brainwashed by Trumpism, as they believe all Democrats are blood-drinking demons, yet are clearly willing to help a foreigner find his daughter. It’s even more fascinating these two men call out Borat’s backwards attitude to women and other ridiculous things, yet see no correlation between those insane myths and ones fed to them natively.
Sacha Baron Cohen is also known for his shock tactics and gross-out humour. And there’s plenty of that in Borat 2; from a human-skinned armchair, to a “fertility dance” at a debutante ball revealing his daughter’s on her period. One of the more jaw-dropping moments was widely circulated days before the film’s release, concerning Rudy Giuliani Donald Trump’s personal lawyer) in a compromising situation after an interview. I won’t spoil it further, but it’s prime evidence Cohen and his producers are still at the top of their game when it comes to gaining access to big names and somehow not blowing their cover.
It’s fair to say Borat 2 isn’t as riotously funny as the 2006 film, which was a more streamlined affair with the ability to fool more people. It also felt fresher and, let’s face it, watching Borat’s antics with a loud crowd in a cinema will elicit more laughter than a home viewing on Amazon. But the sequel is more narratively satisfying and has a more topical agenda, being released weeks before the 2020 US Presidential Election. I don’t think it’s going to make too much of a difference to that result, and it’ll undoubtedly date faster than Borat because of how overtly political its targets are this time, but maybe that’s just a sign of how times have changed.
UK • USA | 2020 | 95 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLSH
Cast & Crew
director: Jason Woliner.
writers: Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja & Dan Swimer (story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Nina Pedrad & Dan Swimer).
starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova & Dani Popescu.