When critics claim to have laughed at the new Borat movie to the point of “suffocating” (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle) or “til I wept” (Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine), my impulse is to hiss back: “You sit on a throne of LIES!”
That’s an actually funny line from Elf (2003), by the way. Unfortunately, there aren’t many funny lines, or funny scenes, or funny anything in the overplotted and overstuffed Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The original Borat from back in 2006 caught the zeitgeist at the perfect moment near the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, raking in over $250 million on an $18 million budget.
But Amazon’s sequel to the 2006 hit tries — and fails — to provide acceptable substitutes for almost every element that worked the first time around. Instead of the original’s neon green “mankini” that made us all too well acquainted with Sacha Baron Cohen’s body, the sequel features a “maskini” in honor of COVID-19 — a blue hospital mask barely covering Cohen’s genitals. In the closing scenes of the movie, we’re even given some awkward pageantry about Dr Anthony Fauci clashing with “Karen,” a woman in a red “All Lives Matter” T-shirt. Haha?
To account for the last fourteen years, we’re shown that Borat’s since been locked up in a gulag as punishment for botching his first trip to America. He’s let out to embark on a second mission to the United States — it seems the despotic ruler of Kazakhstan wants to buddy up to Donald Trump. But seeing as how Borat memorably took a dump in front of Trump Tower in the first film, that’s quickly ruled out. His mission is, instead, to curry favor with vice president Mike Pence by presenting him with a chimpanzee named Johnny the Monkey who is “Kazakhstan’s Minister of Culture and number-one porn star.”
It’s not unusual for sequels to be weak retreads. Trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice — especially after fourteen years — is a near-hopeless task. Pity the poor sequel writers and directors!
The first Borat unfolded with a mad and fast-paced logic — our hero falls in love with Pamela Anderson after watching an episode of Baywatch. Smitten, he embarks on an insane quest to abduct and marry Anderson, thus fulfilling the kind of cracked American dream of adolescent males everywhere. But in the sequel, Borat’s instead forced to negotiate a relationship with his fifteen-year-old daughter Tutar (the dynamic Maria Bakalova), who stows away on his second trip to America.
Like her father, the feral Tutar has her own American dream — she aspires to “live in a golden cage” like Melania Trump instead of her own iron cage back in Kazakhstan. After Tutar kills (and eats) Johnny the Monkey, Borat decides to instead gift his teenage daughter to Pence. Tutar is then given a full Barbie makeover involving bottle-blonde hair, poreless tan skin, and thick eyeliner. Borat ends up dressed in a Trump mask and bodysuit, lugging her over his shoulder straight into the CPAC convention — the real one, it seems — where Pence is speaking. Security guards then quickly descend on the disguised Borat and escort him off the premises. What’s the comedic payoff exactly? It’s this: watching from the podium, Pence shakes his head sternly at the commotion. Haha?
Having failed with Pence, the new idea is to give Tutar to “Trump’s best friend” Rudy Giuliani instead, which is how we got the now-notorious scene featuring the former New York City mayor in compromising circumstances with a young woman. That sequence quickly ends with Borat running into the room yelling, “She’s fifteen, she’s too old for you!”
But that’s the closest Cohen gets to the shock appeal of the first film, when he got both well-known politicians and ordinary Americans to express racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and otherwise horrible views — thus revealing how backward a nation America really is, and putting the cartoon portrait of Borat’s supposedly savage native country in the shade.
This time around, he once again gets people to reveal their horrible beliefs, but it’s all old hat to us by now. You can’t shock us with CPAC convention speeches or gun rally sing-alongs about Barack Obama being injected with “the Wuhan flu.” If anything, it seems dull. There are a lot worse things being said and done in America all the time. And it’s not just clueless “hicks” doing them, either.
The Borat sequel is earning praise for its “fresh, fierce” feminism — for advocating, in the end, that women should, in fact, be taught to read and drive and perhaps not to aspire to live in a cage. Presumably, we are led to believe there’s a significant force in America saying otherwise. Once Tutar’s character was introduced, I was hoping that the film would turn out to be a send-up of the way any shallow “girl power” behavior in movies gets embraced by our media as important feminist statements, setting the bar ever lower for us all.
But no. As Newsweek put it in a headline, “Is Borat 2 a Feminist Movie? These Fans Are Shocked That Their Answer Is Yes!”