PLOT: Fourteen years after first touring America, Borat Sagdiyev is back, and with the help of his daughter, is on a mission to bring a gift to President Trump that will make him and his administration say, “Very nice!”
REVIEW: More than any other brand of movie sequel, the comedy sequel has the roughest go of it. In an attempt to try and make the same joke seem funny again, we’re often forced to watch as genuinely funny people try way too hard and inevitably make you question if the first go-around was even funny to begin with. Now the time has come again for yet another brave challenger – the unexpected sequel to the 2006 smash-hit BORAT – to step up and try to prove that, yes, Sacha Baron Cohen dressing up in a grey suit and adopting an Eastern European accent while pranking unsuspecting Americans is still funny.
Perhaps more than the unwatchable sequels to comedies like DUMB AND DUMBER and ZOOLANDER, BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM has a lot working against it. Not only is the element of surprise gone with everyone and their cousins knowing who Cohen’s Borat is from a half-mile out, but those same people and their same cousins likely still think saying “High five!” with the Borat accent should still net them a laugh. How do you take a cats-out-the-bag premise and run-into-the-ground catchphrases and try to make them funny again? The answer is, you’re probably not going to, as evident by the very beginning of the movie. We find Borat forced to work in a labor camp after his first movie made his home of Kazakhstan a joke, and Cohen tries to get the obvious out of the way with his character saying via voiceover, “My name’a Borat! My wife is nice…not!” While this might be Cohen trying to take his catchphrases and sort of nip them in the bud, all it really does is hint we’re in for a bit of a struggle for the next 90 or so minutes.
Filmed in secret earlier this year amidst the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Borat is brought out of the workforce and sent back to America so that he can gift Vice President Mike Pence with his country’s greatest star – a monkey who has starred in numerous porn films. But hitching a ride this time is his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Baralova) – who had before spent her life living in a barn watching a makeshift Disney princess movie about Melania Trump. Borat, hesitant to bring a girl along, agrees and thus they’re off to accomplish their mission of trying to get in the good graces of the current presidential administration and maybe get people to embarrass themselves along the way. One major factor before doing so is Cohen having to acknowledge everyone knows who Borat is, and therefore must implement a series of disguises in order to go undercover.
This is where the sequel’s problems start. On a surface level, this means that about 50 percent of the time, the character we’re seeing across all the awkward, sometimes wild moments, is not Borat. It feels like BORAT .5, with the other half consisting of characters akin to Cohen’s recent comedy series, WHO IS AMERICA? Except there, Cohen developed a series of colorful characters, got people off their guard, and was able to prank people via the characters’ unique personas. Here, he’s playing Borat who’s himself playing a character in disguise, so of course, it comes off about as funny as a man who’s just really a bad actor. This means that even simple interview segments sometimes fall flat, and big prank segments where uptight Americans are meant to be in compromising positions often swing for the fences and miss completely.
That doesn’t mean every bit can’t have funny moments, given how Cohen is too gifted an actor to leave a situation with absolutely nothing. But with every moment where not even a chuckle is warranted it becomes more and more evident what the problem is: It’s not only that people may recognize Cohen and what he’s trying to do, but rather than we’re in an age where when people come in with cameras and begin acting strange, you start to watch your behavior. We’re all so used to the idea anyone can be filming anything at any time, that it’s no surprise that people aren’t quite giving the responses they may have 14 years ago. Therefore Cohen – and by extension Baralova – can sometimes abandon any nuance or subtlety as they try to go big with certain gags to get a response. When they manage to get results, they can be riotous, but when they don’t, it’s not the kind of awkward that makes for good comedy.
Also working against Cohen and director Jason Woliner (taking over for Larry Charles, who did the first) is the lack of purpose behind bringing the character back out again. If the first time around was meant to shine a light on America’s inherent prejudices towards anyone who looks like an “other”, this time around it seems to be about…nothing.
What does save the story, and in fact makes it for better viewing if you acknowledge it as the primary purpose for the sequel, is how it means to grow Borat as a character by having him connect with his daughter. Across their travels, she becomes increasingly aware of what freedoms women have here compared to what false information her “Daughter’s Manual” has been feeding her her whole life. Baralova is a tremendous talent and makes an excellent supporting player alongside Cohen – and does just as well when they’re apart – and she does the job of making you care about where her arc is taking her and how that makes Borat change for the better. While the first movie has no shortage of sweetness, the sequel’s greatest strength is their relationship, and it’s in these moments together where you can tell Cohen and the half-dozen screenwriters credited were trying to do more with the character beyond putting him in silly interviews.
Primed for release so close to our presidential election, there’s the inescapable expectation something shocking is meant to happen that puts certain politician(s) in a bad light, and for the most part, the movie doesn’t live up to any of those expectations. Most of the people subjected to the weirder gags are the normal citizens you would’ve seen in the first movie, and even then, it’s hard to pick any particular moment that truly stands out. If the release strategy does hint at something, it’s that Cohen and distributor Amazon Studios felt one moment, in general, could be enough to have some sort of relevant shock value. Without alluding to what this moment is, I can say it is indeed worth sitting through the movie just to experience what nightmare-fuel they have in store for you.
Whereas other comedy sequels might offer up a chuckle or two amidst an overall embarrassing display, BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM is admittedly better than it could be – even if it’s a shadow of its predecessor. Cohen is too gifted to not make what he’s doing at least a mostly entertaining ride, and there is a solid amount of sweetness that gives it a core. But simply put, time has not been kind to the premise. With WHO IS AMERICA? Cohen may have finally done the last of what he could when it comes to having people make asses of themselves on camera, exposing the world to who they really are. Here, he does what he can to have some fun and get some big laughs – sometimes with his genius very much on display – but this go around we’re going to have to replace “Very nice!” with “Very…fine.”