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Quite reasonably, one might be drawn to calling “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” satirical — but satire thrives on ruthless scrutiny of a phenomenon, dramatizing that observation to such an absurd conclusion that onlookers end up saying “oh yeah, this is actually kind of messed up.” Following this train of logic, the film, released on Amazon Prime Video on Oct. 23, is not really satire at all, but a devastating and raunchy exposé of various American personalities that coastal liberals try to forget about. Terrifyingly, it’s a real-life Stanford prison experiment: Sacha Baron Cohen — producer, writer, and lead actor — shows us over and over again that people will go along with atrocities rather than question them and risk making anyone uncomfortable.
As in the 2006 original, Borat travels around the United States in unscripted skits, meeting Americans who genuinely believe he is a foreigner with no understanding of how the country actually works. In this release, Borat has been disgraced and is sentenced to death in Kazakhstan — unless he can deliver a pornographic monkey to Vice President Mike Pence as a reconciliation gift. Things go awry when he opens the monkey crate and finds his disheveled daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova) instead. Change of plans: She's the gift now (to Borat, women are not people). Preparations include attending a Texan debutante ball, scheduling $21,000 worth of plastic surgery, and seeking advice from a sugar baby. You know, all the prerequisites to womanhood.
SNL has had trouble satirizing the never-ending string of horrors stemming from decisions in the Trump White House, and Baron Cohen encounters the same problem in this sequel. With the exception of Borat’s misogyny, which slowly dissipates as the film goes on, the other moments throughout the film simply must be observed without much commentary: They are so ridiculous (in a bad way) that there isn’t much more to say.
Baron Cohen shows how ugly parts of this country can be. Examples include the man who doesn’t bat an eyelash when Borat buys a cage for Tutar (implying how lucky she is, unlike the children separated from their parents at the border by the current administration, to be its sole inhabitant) and the woman who more-than-willingly writes an anti-Semitic message on a cake for Borat. There’s also the woman who laughs when Borat asks for Tutar’s dress to scream “no means yes” and the woman at the tanning salon who recommends a skin tone “acceptable” to a racist family — Borat prompts her to say this, but it’s striking that she doesn’t even think twice before answering him in the way he expects to be answered.
Then there’s the pastor more concerned with his crusade against abortion than Borat’s admission of incest (“God doesn’t create mistakes,” apparently) and the two men who take Borat in once COVID hits — both of whom think liberals are worse than the virus (which is a conspiracy theory, of course!) but who spout their own conspiracies without any acknowledgement of their cognitive dissonance.
Throughout it all, Borat’s and Tutar’s racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism serve as the basis for the bonds between them and the various fringe characters who say bigoted things without even blinking. Herein lies Baron Cohen’s point: People are much, much likelier to feel comfortable displaying their own bigotry to someone who has already revealed their own. What’s shocking is not the unmasked opinions, but how easily they’re shown to the viewer. Borat is able to run through the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) wearing KKK garb, and none of the people at the conference stop him. (The Republican Party isn’t officially affiliated with the KKK, but what’s on the screen speaks volumes.)
This sequel is far more politically charged than its predecessor — viewers expecting more of the same will likely be disappointed. Above all, it’s a commentary on truth: People will create their own truth even in the face of contradictory facts. We see Mike Pence say that COVID isn’t a problem to a crowd of adoring fans; we see people attend an anti-mask rally at the end of June when nationwide deaths had already cleared six digits. What else can really be said?
The irony of how these fringe, xenophobic characters embrace Borat, a foreigner, isn’t lost either. As long as Borat conforms to some ol’ fashioned bigotry, he is readily accepted.
Another interesting take in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is its discussion of misogyny. Indeed, it’s the only form of discrimination that approaches any kind of satirization. Borat, a father, receives a manual from the government on how to raise daughters; one particularly “touching” story forbids female masturbation, which scares Tutar so much that she is afraid she will die if she attempts to do it.
The only person who cuts through Borat’s many -isms is Tutar’s babysitter, Jeanise Jones (a mask-wearer and social-distancing adherent!), who tells her that any man should like her as she is and teaches her that, yes indeed, masturbation will not lead to death. That, along with the absurdity of forbidding women to drive, the metaphor of golden cages, and the ridiculousness of foisting plastic surgery upon a 15 year old all show the extent to which female existence is contingent on repackaging the self and crafting palatability to an observer.
Borat shows character development by the end while America does not. It’s been said that the way to change people’s minds is to engage in personal conversations. Borat shows that this is true to some extent, but his conversion from a father who tells Tutar that women can’t ask questions into a “feminist” reporter teaming up with his own daughter on live television also shows that unfortunately, people often have to realize that their personal lives will be harmed if they don’t change their beliefs. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It is more expedient to espout a variety of -isms if doing so upholds some aspect of one’s identity, no matter how vile the opinion.
Borat tells us in the last five minutes of the film that the greatest threat to Kazakhstan is, in fact, the Yankee — and his statement is amusing, but it also belies a stronger, unmissable message if you’ve watched the entire film up to that point. The enemy is us.
Accordingly, the credits say: Go vote.
—Staff writer Cassandra Luca can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @cassandraluca_.
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