Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
The sequel to Sacha Baron Cohen's first vulgar foray into the wilds of American culture, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), rings with satirical self-awareness and fervent social significance. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020) is as preposterous as its title suggests and not only plunges viewers into a campaign of awkward chaos and mouth-dropping gags, but inspires real-life cultural and political consequence.
Cohen's Borat Sagdiyev returns as the laughably ignorant and lovable, but certainly not likable, Kazakh journalist who has spent the last 14 years in a gulag as consequence for how the first film tarnished Kazakhstan's global reputation. At the start of the film, he is released and told to once more infiltrate American society, but this time to deliver a bribe (first in the form of a sex monkey but eventually his 15-year-old daughter) to a member of Donald Trump's cabinet in an attempt to solidify political ties between the two nations. The viewer then follows Borat and his daughter Tutar (played by 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova) on their antics across the American countryside where they dress in a number of hilariously realistic disguises in an attempt to ward off recognition. These disguises, along with their shamelessness in pursuit of their offensive goals, lead them from one troublesome, cringe-worthy experience to another. Viewers watch (spoilers ahead!) with elevating disbelief as Borat and Tutar attend an American formal ball to "teach her how to act like an American lady" only for her to raise her dress and expose her "moon blood" (menstrual blood) to the entire party of unsuspecting guests. Soon after, satisfied with his daughter's progress, Borat dresses as Donald Trump and storms a Mike Pence campaign rally with Tutar on his back, pleading for him to accept his daughter as a gift. In typical Cohen fashion, this event (as well as most scenes in the film) was not staged and did in fact occur at the rally in real-time (you can watch the many perspectives from the moment here). Other shocking scenes include a run-in with a pro-life pastor at the Carolina Women’s Health Center, Tutar's application for breast augmentation surgery, Borat's multiple-day live-in with down-to-earth conspiracy theorists, Borat's inciting of a riot at a far-right rally, Borat and Tutar's deception of a kind-hearted daycare professional, Borat's interview with a Holocaust survivor while wearing an anti-Semitic and stereotypical "Jew" costume (Hasidic Jewish hat and hair, Pinocchio nose, vampire fangs, bat wings, and other offenses), and, perhaps most shocking, Tutar's revealing interview with Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, which caught him lying down in a Hotel bedroom with his hands down his pants.
Like in the first Borat (2006), Cohen once more highlights his genius as a satirist in this latest flic where truth and fiction blend so fluently and influence the other so dramatically that there is no longer a difference. Sacha Baron Cohen is a modern-day Jonathan Swales or Miguel de Cervantes in his ability to fuse so many fictional absurdities with real-world social circumstances that somehow yield a coherent thread of self-aware hilarity. Borat and Tutar's adventures echo the likes of Gulliver's Travels through a fantastical England or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza's knightly quests around the Spanish countryside. They stir up trouble through their insane assaults on the status quo and inspire significant change on the global scale. The country of Kazakhstan has now adopted Borat's catchphrase "Very nice!" as their tourism slogan. Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani have assaulted Cohen in a Twitter battle over their portrayals in the film. Unknowing participants have spoken out against their unsolicited involvement in the film and threatened legal action. The Carolina Women's Health Center, The Kazakh American Association, and a number of Jewish organizations have spoken with outrage against the film's depiction of abortion, the Kazakh identity, and anti-Semitism respectively. The film's impact is certainly profound and deeply affecting given its focus on a fake "foreign" persona performing a less masochistic but more culturally offensive and politically motivated Johnny Knoxville from Jackass: The Movie (2002). In the age of misinformation and "alternate facts," it is no wonder that some critics are hailing a film built on the premise of a lie as "movie of the year."
It is this premise that both defines Cohen's genius and undermines the film's integrity. Unlike previous satire masterpieces such as Jonathan Swales' essay "A Modest Proposal," which inspired social change through its vulgar tone and sharp wit, Borat's cinematic experience can only exist as the offspring of deception. Satire offers an essential check for social, political, and cultural vices; however, in the case of Borat, it comes at the cost of manipulating the very public it seeks to enlighten. While Borat succeeds triumphantly in highlighting the political turmoil, blatant racism, sexism, misogyny, paranoia, and downright idiocy staining much of America's current cultural landscape, it also succeeds in contributing to its propagation. We as viewers come to terms with our own biases through Borat and Tutar's many guises, and yet we are also prompted by the narrative's absurdity to distance ourselves from the eccentric characters depicted in each controversial segment. Viewers find themselves laughing with uncomfortable disbelief as people at a far-right rally chant and sing along to Borat's call to take former president Obama and "inject him with the Wuhan Flu" or "chop him up as the Saudis do," without questioning their own ingrown abilities to shout equally profane and mob-bolstered propaganda when provoked. The viewer is not forced to question their own relationship with injustice through Borat's satirical framework but is rather encouraged to join in the ridicule at the expense of unknowing members of the public sphere. Such a harmful relationship between viewer and subject is difficult to ignore when making an argument in praise of the film's progressive satirical agenda.
Even more damning is the film's insistence to use deception and anti-Semitism as tools for humor. The film's hero and voice of reason and morality is babysitter Jeanise Jones who teaches Tutar the merits of her femininity in face of her alleged misogynistic upbringing. The fact that Jones was unaware that Tutar was an actress speaks to her good character as well as Bakalova's acting prowess (certainly an Oscar-worthy performance); however, this circumstance also raises the question as to what lengths a film should go to entertain a gag if good people are being manipulated without consent to fulfill this goal. The same criticism can be said for the improper depiction of Kazakhstan as ethnic Eastern European and impoverished rather than an ethnic Asian developing nation (though this depiction may be more of a statement on American ignorance than racial carelessness on part of Cohen). Still, Cohen's reliance on anti-Semitism to paint Borat's character is indefensibly irresponsible both in its propagation of harmful Jewish stereotypes as well as how it depicts a Muslim man as bigoted, hate-fueled, and ignorant. At a time when Muslim Kazakhs are being unethically detained in prison camps by the Chinese government, such a characterization is more than shameful: it is life-threatening. The film's left-leaning rhetorical stance is beneficial for narrative clarity but also skews the viewers ability to gather a balanced vision of America's wildlands as was the case with the first Borat (2006). We witness the deplorable actions of conservative leaders like Rudy Giuliani but are robbed of experiencing the same possible injustices from liberal leaders. Perhaps this skewed vision does in fact represent the polarized state of America's soul, but it is questionable whether a film should actively work toward this polarization through its depictions rather than against it.
Love it or hate it, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020) is funny, urgent, and supremely of and for its time. The film's ability to reveal with such humorous finesse the moral depravity of certain political leaders and factions is remarkable. It is definitely a film worthy of viewing and analyzing in a culture constantly pushing the boundaries of what is normal.