Sacha Baron Cohen breaks from formula in ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

When Sacha Baron Cohen makes headlines, the actions often foretell something remarkable on the horizon. But his most recent public exploits point toward “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” more easily referred to as “Borat 2,” a film as unwieldy as its title suggests. 

Released from prison after his actions in the first mockumentary leave his fictionalized Kazakhstan in shambles, Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) returns to America with a plan to repair his country’s international reputation: He intends to gift his teenage daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), to “Vice Premier” Michael Pence in exchange for diplomatic favor. 

For better or for worse, “Borat 2” has a much tighter thematic focus than its predecessor. It expectedly takes aim at American conservatism and the failures of the Trump administration — and indeed, the film makes favorite targets of QAnon conspiracists and COVID-19 deniers. But with a comically regressive father-daughter relationship at its core, the movie pokes fun at its targets from a subtly feminist framework. 

The first film’s popularity, however, presents a critical problem: Borat can’t go anywhere without being recognized. This poses the narrative threat of compromising Borat’s mission, but is a far greater challenge for Cohen himself, who requires the character’s anonymity to elicit the candid “gotcha” antics that the franchise is predicated on.

The delightfully self-aware solution is to have Borat himself go undercover — an exaggerated caricature disguised as other exaggerated caricatures. But once the meta factor wears off, it becomes clear that concealing Borat’s identity changes the nature of the sequel’s humor. Lest his victims recognize they’re being Borat-ed, Cohen now has to frontload the spectacle of his stunts and rely on increasingly ridiculous costumes to provoke his intended reactions. 

More traditional Boratian shenanigans in “Borat 2” thus tend to fall to Tutar, who proves to be quite effective in exploring the film’s feminist bent. The younger Sagdiyev easily keeps up with her father’s antics, but Bakalova has a unique, mischievous talent of her own. 

In one scene, the two walk into a Texas abortion clinic and, in an ingeniously contrived series of miscommunications, mislead a clinician into thinking Tutar is pregnant with her father’s child. Watching the doctor struggle to rationalize his pro-life stance in light of this disturbing misinformation is one of the most priceless moments in the film; Bakalova’s straight-faced, naive performance is what holds it all together. While her father’s antics may often take narrative priority, make no mistake: Tutar is the breakout star of “Borat 2.”

At the same time, the shift to an “undercover” Borat enables some of Cohen’s most self-indulgent in-character behaviors yet. At best, it leads to stunts that feel like pure frivolous spectacle, such as when Borat dawns a fat suit and barges into a Republican convention disguised as President Donald Trump, carrying Tutar over his shoulder. There’s not a profound statement being made here, but it’s at least a harmless, entertaining set piece. 

The shift also brings about many less than savory moments, however, which arguably cross the line from uncomfortably funny to downright mean-spirited. The most significant offender sees a depressed Borat dress up as a Jewish caricature and go to a synagogue, waiting for the next mass shooter to “end it all.” While there, he berates a real Holocaust survivor with a tirade of increasingly ridiculous Nazi apologisms. Obstensibly, Cohen is trying to demonstrate the absurdity of anti-Semitic conspiracies, but with such an appallingly misguided choice of victim for the gag, it’s hard to find anything of value in the scene.

It’s in these moments that the shortcomings of “Borat 2” are most obvious: There isn’t anything to be learned from its central experiment. Its political leanings occasionally provide a fresh direction and even a delicious sense of karma, seeing the character utilized for partisan vengeance. But the surprise isn’t, as in the original film, in the behavior Cohen is able to elicit — that much is familiar. It’s simply in how far he’s willing to go to get it.

Olive Grimes covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ogrimes5.