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'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' Review: Pretty great success

'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' picks up Sagdiyev’s saga 14 years later for a pandemic odyssey that's smarter, sweeter and only slightly less funny.

Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen play daughter and father in 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm'.
(Image: © Amazon Prime)

Our Verdict

Sacha Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner manage to rekindle much of the magic of the original 'Borat,' adding the character's daughter to huge comedic effect.

For

  • 🇺🇸 Cohen's second trip through the American heartland takes an incisive stab at Trump-era values and age-of-COVID politics.
  • 🇺🇸 Newcomer Maria Bakalova is a comic revelation as Borat's daughter Tutar, elevating every scene in which she appears.
  • 🇺🇸 Cohen and Woliner skillfully circumvent the obvious challenge of infiltrating communities with the most conspicuous 'bumbling foreigner' of the modern age.

Against

  • 🇺🇸 There was little chance of truly recapturing the first film's lightning in a bottle, and the filmmakers know not to try.

Arriving 14 years and 14 million impersonations after the original Borat, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm faces what has become an increasingly familiar challenge in the era of legacyquels, namely getting away with new gags after the old ones got injected into popular culture like COVID into the bloodstream - and it succeeds much better than a lot of the films and series that tried before it. From Anchorman 2 to Arrested Development to Dumber and Dumber To to Zoolander 2 to Bill and Ted Face the Music, a lot of very talented storytellers have tried to mount sequels to their biggest successes with only intermittent luck, and Borat’s arrival in 2006 at a nascent stage of the mainstream’s collective meme-ification only complicates the prospect of duplicating its originality and impact. (If you’re a married American male in 2020, it’s virtually impossible to think of your spouse without Sacha Baron Cohen’s delivery of the phrase “my wife” occasionally rattling around in your head.)

Cohen would be foolhardy to believe that he could achieve the same effect with a follow-up - if he could pull it off at all. But in re-centering his sequel around the character’s daughter, Cohen pulls off a unique and triumphant feat with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, not simply by creating a new proxy to catapult into one unpredictable “real-life” scenario after another, but also by adding new dimensions to a character whose instant recognizability made him a one-dimensional cipher as much as a bona fide cultural phenomenon.  

Cohen reprises his role as Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakhstani journalist whose first visit to the U.S. 14 years ago ended in disgrace, both for him and for Kazakhstan. Granted a reprieve from hard labor in exchange for delivering a gift to Vice President Mike Pence, Borat agrees to return to the “U, S and A” and complete this diplomatic mission. But when unexpected disaster befalls the intended gift, Borat decides to offer his only daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) up instead. Before he can hand her off, however, he attempts to give her lessons in etiquette, and get her a makeover to appear more attractive to the dignitary. 

Directed once again by Jason Woliner (The Last Man on Earth), Subsequent Moviefilm addresses the inherent challenge of having Cohen play the bumbling, identifiable foreigner in two ways: first, Cohen enlists a variety of disguises that somehow call even more attention to him while simultaneously concealing his true identity; and second, he employs relative newcomer Bakalova as Sagdiyev’s daughter, which distracts onlookers from him, and then offers a different perspective from which to explore the character’s wildly ignorant behavior. 

Cohen’s endless inventiveness as a performer enables the film to more or less operate in the same way as its predecessor, and even though there are a handful of scripted sequences, Borat’s ability to lead nonprofessionals into hilarious, frequently disturbing self-incrimination frequently feels as thrilling and unpredictable as ever. Meanwhile, Tutar’s endless curiosity provides both a mirror (and megaphone) for Borat’s backwards values and an endless comedic resource to play against expectations, especially in heartland communities sustained by tradition.

Aside from its raucous and raunchy comic set pieces, the original Borat endures because of its incisive portraiture of a consistent and yet almost invisible throughline of civility among insular communities; whether or not those individuals were racist, homophobic or otherwise prejudiced, their attempts to accommodate Borat and his own dunder-headed world view generated almost all of the comedy. Its sequences feel especially fascinating to watch now, in an era where those prejudices seem to be expressed increasingly more freely, not to mention in comparison to similar ones in Subsequent Moviefilm where the participants are much more directly endorsing perspectives they might have diplomatically nodded at when Borat expressed them. But even if Cohen definitely finds a number of ultra-conservatives to make fun of here, he and Woliner and their team of writers skillfully choose not to just retread the same ground. Instead, they tap into the emotional throughline connecting Borat’s redemption story and Tutar’s coming of age to spotlight the less immediately visible dangers of illiberal indoctrination, passed along as tradition to be protected regardless of empirical evidence of its obsolescence.

Precisely how Cohen, his co-star and his crew were able to get access (well, close) to Pence at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), and in a gobsmacking sequence, to Rudy Giuliani, remains a mystery - or more accurately, a triumph of their diligence over the politicians’ careless handlers. But the comedian once again maximizes these moments to tremendous, damning effect, delivering a humiliation that they not only deserve but become architects of themselves. 

Conversely, Cohen’s shots at a conservative “fertility clinic,” a women’s group and a pair of Qanon nuts who allow him to quarantine with them feel alternately smarter and more gentle than in the past without failing to highlight the often insane points of view they articulate. And whether a black woman hired as a “babysitter” for Tutar was actively cast for her compassionate common sense or simply rose to meet the film’s needs, Woliner and Cohen elicit some huge laughs from her, without making fun, and while showcasing her honest responses.

Ultimately, Borat Subsequent Film was never going to be as surprising as the original Borat, and it’s not quite as funny. Given the canonization of the first, I am not sure either were even possible. But you get the sense that Cohen and his collaborators know what they are up against, and aim for something different this time - a target that’s similar, sharper, but a little sweeter. Moreover, initiating such a huge portion of this, if not all of it, in and during 2020 feels like a massive risk not just health-wise but creatively that pays off better than I would bet anyone could have imagined. Because this takes place during the pandemic, certainly preys upon many of the fears and concerns, and puts the circumstances to comedic and narrative use, but it does not feel like a stopgap, or like “quarantine entertainment.” Whether or not it will endure after COVID is over, but like its predecessor, Subsequent Film is a movie about what’s going on in the world, right now, and it makes us laugh, be shocked, even get offended, but most of all to be excited - and truly not know - which of those reactions we’ll have next.

Borat Subsequent Film will be available on Amazon Prime Video October 23rd, 2020