When Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat hit theaters in 2006, few would have guessed how influential (and prescient) the movie’s blend of political satire and real-world spectacle would be by the time its sequel dropped. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (aka Borat 2) was released Oct. 23 on Amazon Prime.
In recent years, Baron Cohen’s fourth-wall-breaking approach to comedy has spawned a microgenre of its own. Comedy Central series Nathan for You, which debuted in 2013, zeroes in on a uniquely American sense of tenderness and futility by offering suspect advice to struggling small-business owners, while Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show totally rejects narrative structure to create moments of unadulterated chaos.
What’s even more notable, though, is how Borat’s absurdity has seeped into the banality of everyday life — far beyond your co-worker blurting out “mah wife” at the water cooler for a few forced laughs.
YouTube and social media have made the entire world a stage for Baron Cohen-esque moments — entirely unscripted ones at that. Just spend a lunch break scrolling through Twitter or the “PublicFreakout” subreddit and you’ll find no shortage of clips exposing the panic and anger of folks pushed past their comfort zone. In fact, many of the stunts Baron Cohen orchestrated for the Borat Subsequent Moviefilm were filmed by bystanders and propagated online before disappearing into the digital ether as the internet moved on to consume its next spectacle.
It’s for all of these reasons that I expected the new Borat to come off as clumsy; outdated, even. Luckily, I was very wrong.
Instead of retooling his formula, Baron Cohen doubles down on the social commentary. Subsequent Moviefilm is an appropriately ham-fisted story for unsubtle times, centering on the titular Kazakh journalist’s return to the States in order to offer Mike Pence his daughter’s (Maria Bakalova) hand in marriage. If he succeeds — landing Kazakhstan in the same axis of influence as Russia, Brazil, and North Korea — he’ll be spared execution for the shame that the first Borat flick brought upon his native country.
Immediately upon Borat’s return to the United States, the film addresses Baron Cohen’s biggest challenge in producing a sequel: the success of its predecessor.
Borat’s gray suit and mustache are so recognizable, he can’t cook up any hijinks without blowing his cover. Pedestrians clamor to get photos with him, shop owners call his bluff, and a Halloween store stocks costumes of his likeness. Thus, Baron Cohen must disguise himself as Borat in disguise, adding layers of surreality to his already-strange setups.
The best moments of the movie arrive when we're able to marvel at the complexity of these stunts, which you’ve probably already heard about in the news. How was he able to sneak a hyper-realistic Trump mask and fatsuit into this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, briefly interrupting Mike Pence’s speech? Who scheduled Baron Cohen to perform as a country artist at an anti-COVID-19 lockdown rally? Is Rudy Giuliani really that horny and gullible?
These scenes, which are really just more ambitious versions of the ruses Baron Cohen pulled in his 2018 docu-series Who Is America?, feel like watching a Rube Goldberg machine in action, your breath bated in equal parts horror and delight as you wait to see how far he’s able to go with his pranks.
The movie’s plot exists mainly as a vehicle for Baron Cohen to move from place to place, and you can almost feel its components being shuffled and rearranged as the film’s focus diverts from Mike Pence when Cohen is forced to quarantine with eccentric, QAnon-loving locals. The central father-daughter bond adds a little charm to the movie, but their chemistry never really reaches its full potential until its adorable (scripted) conclusion, in which the pair introduces feminism and progressive politics to their home village.
In the end, the second Borat is more technically impressive than its precursor, but I suspect it’ll be less rewatchable, thanks to its reliance on current events and pure shock value. It’s more of an “event” than a timeless artwork — which may be to the film’s benefit when we’re all stuck watching movies at home, blessed with an abundance of cinema to consume at the click of a remote.
Embrace the spectacle while you can: We could all use little real-world excitement that doesn’t come at our own expense.