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Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Ivor Holmes explores Sacha Baron Cohen's latest exposé of American bigotry and the attempt to convert voters in 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm'.

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Image Credit: Amazon Studios

5/10
Director: Jason Woliner
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova
Running Time: 1 hr 36 mins
Rating: 15

The followup to Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 mockumentary, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, catches up with Borat as he is sent on a mission by the Premier of Kazakhstan to woo Donald Trump by offering his daughter as a ‘gift’. Along the way he finds himself in a familiar set of wild scenarios, including several with high-level Republican politicians, most notably a compromising scene with Rudy Giuliani. Regrettably, the Borat sequel fails to match its predecessor either in laughs or in political commentary, with a significant portion of the running time being just plain boring.

Whilst the film does offer laugh-out-loud moments, the stunts lack the tightness of much of Cohen’s previous work; they often have lengthy setups revealing the joke before it has happened. Borat’s daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), performs the best material, and I often found myself wishing Borat could have been relegated to a supporting role in favour of this fresher character. A great deal of the humour has been recycled from the first film, which meant that many of Borat’s lines felt stale. The character of Borat was originally amusing, not only because of his ridiculousness, but also because of his charming child-like naivety, yet this has been lost in favour of the repetition of ‘wawaweewa.’ Additionally, a great deal of the film is fully scripted, with the aim of giving the film more of a narrative structure. This bogged the film down, as Borat shines in the awkward or ridiculous moments of interaction with regular people, which the plot should essentially be an excuse for. It would be a lie to say the film is devoid of these moments; most notably there is an incredibly heartwarming scene where Borat talks to a sweet elderly holocaust survivor in a Synagogue.

The Trumpian America Borat returns to is dramatically different to the America he left in 2006. It is a country plagued by the far right, which has infiltrated not only the Republican party, but the Presidency itself. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm attempts to expose the ignorance and casual bigotry widespread in contemporary American politics. Borat’s quest is initiated after Trump cosied up to authoritarian leaders around the world, such as arch-oligarch Putin and borderline-fascist Bolsonaro, and the Premier of Kazakhstan decides he wants Borat to secure the same for him. He primarily targets senior Republican politicians, such as ‘vice pussy-grabber’ Pence, but along the way encounters some Trump supporters, who subscribe to eyebrow-raising ideas, including the theory that the Clintons are responsible for COVID-19. Can America be brought back from the brink of extremism? The film offers few answers, but by portraying such absurdity it strongly implies Americans cannot continue to tolerate the toxic presence of Trump or his ideology of hate. This is a welcome sentiment, but the US needs to go beyond rejecting Trump, or it risks neglecting the conditions which brought Trump to the White House in the first place. Without a more radical egalitarian social vision, the ideological vacuum will be filled by the far right once again.

King of political satire, Armando Iannucci has said he will not satirise Trump, because ‘any attempt to present a fictional version of today’s events would never be as crazy as the real thing.’ This is certainly true of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, since much of Borat’s ‘shocking’ material blends comfortably into the insanity of far-right politics in America making it feel unremarkable. The genius of the original Borat character was his ability to uncover bigotry in people who would usually publicly present themselves as tolerant. However, it is difficult to expose Trump and his supporters as having predatory tendencies towards women, when Trump has already been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 25 different women.

Similarly, when Borat goes to stay with some hardcore Trump supporters, it’s hardly shocking material when they start espousing QAnon conspiracy theories, when you can turn on the news and see the exact same thing. It’s no accident the film was released shortly before the US election; the film makes no effort to conceal its distaste for conservative America. Yet the film is unlikely to affect American voting outcomes, since Trump’s misconduct was just as notorious before the 2016 election. Therefore, a more radical commentary could have attempted to show how predatory sexual behaviour is endemic to the American political class — Biden is also alleged to have sexually assaulted a female lawyer, for example. In a political arena full of rabid dogs, Borat fails to have any political bite. That said, Cohen’s 2018 show Who is America successfully produced stupefying material in the Trump era, such as Dick Cheney autographing a ‘waterboard kit’. This proves Cohen is capable of delivering the goods in the Trump era, even if this is more challenging than before.

Much of the film focuses on attitudes towards women, taken through the lens of Tutar, who has a state-issued manual which says she should be kept in a cage. Whilst the female liberation story feels rather clumsily crafted, it is nonetheless one of the stronger elements of the film, partly since it covers relatively untrodden material when it comes to Borat.  Highlights include when Borat takes Tutar to meet what he names ‘one of America’s leading feminists’, who is a self-professed ‘sugar baby’, and a touching moment when a babysitter encourages Tutar to think critically about the narratives about women she has been sold. Yet I can’t help wishing the story had been told directly through Tutar, and Borat given a supporting role. It feels as though an intriguing feminist story has fallen into the familiar trap of being told through the lens of a male protagonist.

Editor’s Note: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is available to stream on Amazon Prime

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