‘Borat subsequent moviefilm’ review: More cultural learnings

By Devika Girish

In the 2006 movie “Borat,” an American humor coach explains the concept of a “not” joke to Borat Sagdiyev, the disarmingly moronic Kazakh journalist played by Sacha Baron Cohen. “We make a statement that we pretend is true, but at the end, we say, ‘not,’” the coach explains. But Borat struggles to grasp the pause required to make the joke work. First he pauses for too long before “not”; then, too briefly. The joke falls flat.

Baron Cohen’s postmodern comedy hinges on that pause. Traveling through America as a bigotry-spewing buffoon, he confronts people with a series of “not” jokes posed as ethical litmus tests. He’s an anti-Semite … not. He’s a misogynist … not. He’s an ignorant foreigner … not. If you can detect the pause, you’re the audience for the joke; if you can’t, you’re its butt.

In the long-awaited sequel, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (streaming on Amazon starting Oct. 23), Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner bring that guerrilla concept back into a strange new world. Borat emerges as if from a time capsule: All these years, the film’s nudgy-winky opening montage tells us, he’s been serving time for embarrassing Kazakhstan with his prior exploits. But now, he’s being dispatched to America again to curry favor with President “McDonald” Trump. In an inspired (and ludicrously contrived) turn, he has a new partner in his madcap mockumentary: his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (played by Maria Bakalova), whom he plans to gift to “Vice Premier” Mike Pence as a gesture of goodwill.

It’s an amusingly harebrained scheme, but there’s nothing in this moviefilm that matches the elegant social experiment of the first, which sought to explore where precisely American civility departs from morality. The problems with the sequel start right at the beginning. Borat is too recognizable in the U.S. now, so to pull off the same pranks, he has to disguise himself heavily, as Baron Cohen did on his 2018 TV show, “Who Is America?”

These often ridiculous costumes (including a memorable one at a conservative conference) undercut the film’s promise of revelation — one that already feels compromised by the age of media manipulation and disinformation that we live in. The test is no longer of civility but of gullibility. In one extended gag, Borat spends some days living with followers of QAnon, who scoff at his outrageous fabrications but respond with their own conspiracies about bloodlusty, Satan-worshipping cults. Unlike the curiosity that seemed to motivate Baron Cohen in the previous film, here the goal appears to be to goad people to confirm what we already know.

What does add some novelty is Bakalova’s presence, which offers a change of pace from Borat’s usual litany of phallic humor. Tutar starts out as a feral, sheltered teen who’s taught that women will die if they work or drive or masturbate; slowly, she’s exposed to a double-sided experience of American womanhood, first at clothing shops and salons, then at an anti-abortion center and a plastic surgery clinic. In these encounters, Bakalova matches Cohen in committing to the part with not a trace of self-consciousness, capturing a disturbing range of sexist attitudes that build into the film’s finale — possibly its only politically hefty moment, involving President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Cohen said in a Times interview that he wanted to put out the film before the election as “a reminder to women of who they’re voting for — or who they’re not voting for.” But at a time when those in power brazenly flaunt their misogyny, this faith in the persuasive effects of public shaming strikes me as misplaced. The elaborate ruses of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” left me neither entertained nor enraged, but simply resigned.

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