When the character of Borat debuted in 2000 on Da Ali G Show, the short scenes featuring the ersatz Kazakhstani reporter were an absolute blast, with pranks that often revealed the bigotry and snobbishness of his unassuming targets – a new way of pranking unsuspecting victims who were quickly catching on to Ali G’s hijinx. The joke still worked in 2006’s Borat movie, even though the device framing each outrageous encounter – which saw Borat searching for Pamela Anderson across America with the intent of marrying her – was awkwardly false and, at times, unfunny.
Unfortunately, the sequel – Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm – still doesn’t fare well in this regard, but what it does get right is the scenes of Borat and his ‘daughter’ (actually Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova) interacting with everyday Americans, as well as some more high profile targets. Quite often, Baron Cohen has to further disguise himself as the Borat character is of course pretty well known; Bakalova’s inclusion in the proceedings also allows them to go a step further with another character in order to avoid the arousal of suspicion from their prey. The framing device does at least work a lot better than it did in the first film and it is ultimately stronger by the end.
There’s some seriously uncomfortable scenes, as is customary when it comes to Baron Cohen’s characters – including one in which the father and daughter visit an abortion clinic – and some are so uncomfortable as to go way past the point of comedy. There’s a satisfaction, as there always has been, in seeing prejudice and bigotry laid bare – especially in an eye-opening sequence at a gun-rights rally, which sees attendees chanting that journalists should be dismembered and even using Nazi salutes – but there’s occasions where it feels a bit like Baron Cohen is punching down, unnecessarily. A well meaning babysitter and two elderly, kindly Jewish ladies are two examples of this.
More interesting is the fact that COVID features heavily in the proceedings and much is made of the political response to it, as well as a revealing section in which Borat is quarantined with two QAnon conspiracy theorists. They talk with all earnestness about the Democrats and their child trafficking plots before ridiculing Borat for his nation’s propaganda. It’s unquestionably where the character works best. High profile politicians and their advisers are named and a few of them feature reasonably heavily, which means that there are some references here that may not mean much outside of the US (a Stephen Miller joke, for example, though very on point, is unlikely to make sense to non American audiences). As well as this, the focus on ridiculing Republicans and the right wing politics in play in America right now is likely to be very divisive.
Spoilers abound in this next paragraph: you have been warned! There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about Rudy Giuliani’s appearance in which he seemingly seems to be getting undressed to sleep with Borat’s daughter, but – and I say this as no fan of Giuliani – it seems lacking in any definitive ‘gotcha’ moment and feels more like clever editing as he’s pushed from one conversation and then one room to another. Though the images and footage that’s already been seen online of this particular sequence do seem pretty damaging, in the film I struggled to see that he did anything wrong, particularly as Baron Cohen rushes in way before anything untoward has a chance to develop anyway – perhaps necessarily.
It’s a mixed bag then; with Baron Cohen and Bakalova’s pranking scenes, the film often works a funny and clever magic. Though there’s a few times it falls flat or feels unnecessarily mean, there’s enough here that’s laugh out loud funny and astonishingly topical that it’s worth a watch, but the concept has definitely lost a lot of freshness in the years since Borat’s debut.
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