The Thing About Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova gamely run to and from absurdity in a surprising, if toothless Amazon Prime Video sequel. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

He’s baaack.

Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Sagdiyev, the (fictional) leading journalist from Kazakhstan’s State-run TV network and that nation’s now-fourth most famous man, has returned to the big screen after 14 years, a long time during which a lot has happened. For one, Borat was sacked from his job, for embarrassing the Kazakh people with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. For two, he was publicly humiliated (Wa wa wee wa!), and for three, he was sentenced to a life of hard labor in a Gulag.

It’s very nice to see Borat again, indeed, but 2020 is not 2006, so there’s not much left for Baron Cohen to uncover and expose with this sequel titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Not that he (Borat), is the same man, even.

Borat is now a (reluctant?) father to a teenaged daughter named to Tutar, a 15-year-old who is very much the product of her environment with a hilarious a.k.a. you have to hear for yourself to truly enjoy, who is portrayed by Bulgarian newcomer Maria Bakalova. Do you remember the misogyny of the first movie? This time it’s…endearingly…directed at Tutar.

Awww.

As you may have surmised from the sequel’s title, Borat is back on the American beat, tasked with restoring luster to Kazakhstan in the eyes of the Trump regime – a mission that, of course, goes hilariously, at times, off the rails, especially because the pandemic has a role to play in his plot a…round America, too. Of course it does; I did state these are quite the different times.

COVID-19’s still a thing that’s going on around the world (I know!), so it makes sense that Borat should find himself streaming in 2020 – so beyond Hollywood – and that is why this most surprising of follow-ups will be premiering for a global audience via Amazon Prime Video on Oct. 23.

What amused and enlightened about the first movie, though (oh how it busted the ol’ block), rings less earnest or shocking or actually amusing a decade and a half, for the bar has been lowered so low. There is no bar anymore. In fact, the bar is closed. ’Cause of COVID, which new director Jason Woliner (TV’s The Last Man on Earth) tentatively captures at the onset, working off of a script by a small village of story- and screenwriters, and which this part deux full-on addresses and embraces.

To see a certain kind of breed of American not simply say shocking things anymore but do shocking things like it’s NBD (because critical thinking is dead and these folks fail to discern what’s appropriate and because ultimately, they get what they want, which is attention…a platform from which to show off their greatness), including a man who is thisclose to the friggin’ president, no less, it’s like…sigh. At best.

The joke’s not that funny anymore. It’s a confederacy of dunces at the dawn of a new millennium (for now), we know this, and there is nothing to gain from watching a once-inspiring American leader act a complete fool or from pulling a fast one on the vice president. 

Baron Cohen, presumable aware that he can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice, leans into the time that’s passed between movies to play up Tutar and explore how extreme views have become all but normalized stateside, but this is a soapy development that fails to resonate or excite, y’ know. Worse, it all but shatters the spell that the actor cast so many years ago, dulling the sharpness of his previous satire verité. Tutar vibes like a late-to-arrive character from a more misogynistic era gone by, 10 years ago, and one that ultimately grounds Baron Cohen’s creation more in his kind of Kazakhstan than in our very real world. Should there be a trilogy capper, it should be a rom-com of some sort starring Tutar.

The thing about Borat is he is a character of a time. Respect for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm for make good time in home theater and its clever dénoument, which hinges on your knowledge of a mid-1990s thriller and your grasp on the zeitgeist of the twenty-teens (with a special emphasis on the predilections and peccadilloes of a certain fallen star) – but the only plus of this one? The ability to rewind, and the realization that it is always best to look forward and ahead.

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