Fourteen years after “Borat,” Sacha Baron Cohen brings the Kazakhstani journalist back to the screen in the comedy sequel “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” but where the character once brought bracing laughs and provocative social commentary, the net effect of this new movie is to stoke pangs of nostalgia for an America that was slightly less awful than it is today.
If we want to see Americans — the famous kind or the average citizen — reveal their darkest, cruelest, most horrible opinions, we can just get on social media. Baron Cohen putting on a wig and an accent and showing up with a camera is no longer necessary.
Is there a brand of comedy that could find a new and funny perspective on the president and his cadre of goons? Or a hilarious take on a pandemic that has brought death, economic devastation, and walking trauma to much of the planet? Possibly, but if such a thing exists, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is not the place to find it. If humor is tragedy plus time, tragedy in real-time is just tragedy.
We open with Borat (Baron Cohen) breaking up rocks in a labor camp as punishment for bringing ridicule to the people of Kazakhstan with his previous cinematic effort. The nation’s ruler releases Borat to send him on a mission: Bring a gift to “vice premier” Mike Pence in the hopes that Donald Trump will make Kazakhstan part of the “strongman club” of presidential allies alongside Russia, North Korea, and Brazil.
Upon arrival in the states, Borat discovers that his daughter (Maria Bakalova, “Gomorrah”) has hidden in the crate and eaten the gift for Pence (a performing monkey), but then he decides to make a gift of his daughter to the vice-president or perhaps another high-ranking Republican. Changing her look and attempting to deliver her to a prominent conservative sets the pair on a road trip around the country.
When “Subsequent Moviefilm” sets its sights on the politically powerful, it achieves some momentary relevance, but the rest of the film goes after cosmetic surgeons, cake decorators, QAnon conspiracy theorists, debutante coaches, and the like. Whereas the impact of the original “Borat” stemmed mainly from the shock of people being coerced into expressing shameful opinions on camera, the subsequent years, and the election of Trump, has shown us that the people with these opinions have no shame whatsoever. Also, over a decade and a half, we’ve become attuned to the fact that a) these people know they’re on camera and have clearly agreed to participate in some kind of film project or other; and b) they all signed a release form or they wouldn’t be in the movie at all.
It’s a little less shocking to see that cake decorator write “Jews will not replace us” on a chocolate cake — in cursive handwriting and with a smiley face — when we feel like she’s fully in on Baron Cohen’s bit. Not to mention the fact that a gang of white guys chanted that very phrase in front of news cameras without being asked.
The movie acknowledges that Borat himself has to find disguises since he has become so well-known in America, and at times it feels like Baron Cohen’s enthusiasm for the enterprise is waning, as he has to come up with different sub-characters to get himself into places. (Probably the best of these moments is when he performs an original right-wing song at a “freedom rally” and gets the crowd to sing that we should chop up journalists “like the Saudis do.”)
Bakalova is certainly fearless and a good sport and anyone who can keep up with Baron Cohen as a public practitioner of improv humiliation is clearly a very talented performer, but the movie tries too hard to make us care about the father-daughter relationship. The pivot from would-be biting satire to sentimentality, even in an ironic sense, is more than director Jason Woliner, a TV vet, seems to be able to handle.
Sacha Baron Cohen remains committed to what matters, both offscreen (he was a driving force in getting Facebook to shut down Holocaust deniers) and on (“Subsequent Moviefilm” ends with an admonition to “Vote — Or You Will Be Executed”), but you can be right without being funny. This sequel might (in, one hopes, a happier future) be hilarious in retrospect, but at the moment, it’s a mostly cringe-worthy experience.