There’s comedy that punches up, as all comedy should. (Punching down, at powerless targets that don’t deserve it, is cruelty, not comedy.) And then there’s what Sacha Baron Cohen does in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Punching up can’t get much higher than the swings he takes here. This is a work of breathtaking audacity, with a genuine courting of actual danger — physical and legal — in the pursuit of satire that stings without mercy. This is as perilous as comedy gets, seat-of-the-pants, almost literally balls-out stuff: the infamous mankini makes a return, this time made of a repurposed face mask. It’s very, very funny, often shockingly so, in the lengths Baron Cohen will go to in order to land his scathing cultural strikes. And they land like extinction-level asteroids.
Shot secretly, and very recently, this is a surprise sequel to Baron Cohen’s (Alice Through the Looking Glass, The Brothers Grimsby) genre-defying 2006 hit Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Part documentary, part pointed prank, part extended performance art, that was a work of outrageous genius that plopped the performer down into middle America — literally and figuratively — in the character of Borat Sagdiyev, a journalist for Kazakhstani television and, more significantly, an almost monstrous parody of a supposedly backwater ignoramus from an ostensibly third-world country. (The real Kazakhstan is nothing of the sort.) As Borat, Baron Cohen had no trouble getting ordinary Americans to profess to all manner of racist, sexist, violent shit, and to celebrate the belligerence of the United States. There was much poking at hypocrisy, but perhaps the most provocative thing Baron Cohen achieved there was in underlining how little difference there was between Borat and the putative global standard bearers of freedom, valor, and happiness. America and Americans — not exclusively but not unfairly — are held up as narrowminded, as selfish, as self-satisfied and with as little reason, as Borat himself.
But this? *whew* If American ugliness reached a new fever pitch in the immediate post–9/11 years, Donald Trump’s proudly ignorant, rage-fueled United States is infinitely more dangerous in 2020. Borat is back again amongst the Americans, risking virus infection during a global pandemic — this is up-to-the-minute filmmaking as quick and as agile as Baron Cohen’s nimble knockabout clowning — and the semiautomatic ire of the right-wing conspiracy theorists and ardent Trumpsters he meets. It appears that Baron Cohen (and, I suppose, his cameraman) spent several days quarantining, in character, with a couple of QAnon dolts. His dedication to a gag is mindboggling.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is subtitled Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and the conceit is that the Kazakhstani government is upset to be missing out on Trump’s warm embrace of global strongmen. So they send Borat with a gift to butter Trump up, but getting close enough to Trump is tricky, of course. Accompanied by his teenaged daughter, Tutar (a hilarious Maria Bakalova), the odyssey leads Borat through a nightmarescape of conservative America, its “values” pantomimed in venues from a debutante cotillion — where the antics of the visiting father-daughter team lay bare what is really being said, socially, when a father “presents” his daughter to society — to a Trump rally, where a disguised Borat gets the crowd to cheerfully, even gleefully sing along with a horrifically savage ditty of his own creation.
I did wonder, when I first heard about Subsequent Moviefilm just a few weeks ago, whether Borat had run his course, whether Baron Cohen could take this schtick anywhere new. But all doubts I had about Baron Cohen’s chutzpah were quickly blown away. This is a ferocious takedown of 2020 America, one in which the propensity of regular folk to go along with the most awful things is laid bare, and feels newly terrifying when there’s a “leader” who is doing his damnedest to take his followers to dark places. I can’t think of another film I’d called “cautionary comedy” — warning klaxons are blaring here.
It’s not all bad: there are a few kind people who engage with “Borat” and “Tutar” in ways that are helpful and positive. And there’s a sweet tenderness between father and daughter, too. Though it takes some time to develop: Borat’s Kazakhstan is a place blatantly unfriendly to girls and women, and he has to learn how to see his daughter as a person in her own right. The feminist lessons he — and she — learn are, of course, ones needed in America, which is only more oblique in its sexism. (There’s a running joke here about Melania Trump as a Disney-style princess that is absolutely spot on.)
But those punches? It’s astonishing how high up Baron Cohen manages to punch. It’s terrifying, from a national security perspective, in the smack of realization of just how incredibly stupid, how very compromisable very powerful people can be. Baron Cohen practically reinvents the notion of an election-year October surprise. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm could actually have an authentic impact on American politics, and not without good reason. How the hell did we end up here?