America under Trump has a lot to answer for and Sacha Baron Cohen, the British-born satirist, prankster, and performance artist, is back to make us pay and pay as deservedly and painfully as possible. And in the unexpected, semi-anticipated return of Cohen’s singular creation, Borat Sagdiyev, the fictional Kazakhstan reporter who became a real-life pop-culture figure, pay we most definitely do, expiating our political, cultural, and social sins or the equivalent thereof in a loosely connected sequence of gags, jokes, and various other attempts at humor, always at the expense of the venal, ignorant, narcissistic Americans who either voted for Trump, supported him (and still do), or simply didn’t do enough to stop a failed businessman turned reality TV show host from obtaining the most powerful position in the American political system and by extension, the world via highly questionable, dubious means.
Borat is Back and He Has a Plot
Even more than its predecessor’s prescient road-trip through the America of the early aughts, the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (hereinafter “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), has something resembling a plot, this time centering on the surprisingly poignant relationship between the exiled and imprisoned Borat and the daughter (aka, the “non-male son”) he never knew he had, Tutar Sagdiyev (Maria Bakalova, revelatory), a near-feral, unwashed 15-year-old who dreams of following in the footsteps of her role model, Melania Trump, and obtaining a significantly older, richer man to purchase a golden cage for her. (In the Borat universe, the most extreme, regressive of patriarchy defines every relationship between men and women, including fathers and daughters.)
Tasked with restoring Kazakhstan’s tarnished reputation by the country’s unelected leader, Premier Nazarbayevdx (Dani Popescu), by delivering a suitably rare gift to America’s dictator-wannabe, Borat leaves Kazakhstan with a rare, unique animal only to find Tutar in its place after he arrives in the United States via a perplexingly circuitous route. With everything to lose, including his life if he returns to Kazakhstan without accomplishing his goals, Borat sets about transforming Tutar into the “perfect” American girl, buying a prom dress that screams “no means yes,” taking Tutar to a cosmetic surgeon for a combo nose-job and breast augmentation, and in one of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s early, jaw-dropping highlights, a Southern debutante ball that goes predictably sideways and/or awry.
Borat Gains a Non-Male Son
That ball gives Bakalova the rarest of opportunities for a relative newcomer sharing the screen with an established comedian or performer: Self-effacing, deliberate self-immolation as a means towards an end (i.e., viewer engagement and/or laughter). She doesn’t waste the opportunity by any means, but by then, it’s become obvious that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm isn’t just a Borat sequel, but an origin story of sorts for Tutar and her ideological journey from perceiving herself as someone else’s possession or object to a subject and individual in her own right. Her growth as a character, in turn, allows Borat to shockingly change as well, from a casual, regressive misogynist to a feminist ally by the film’s closing moments. Even better, Borat’s transformation unfolds amidst Cohen and his collaborator’s most daring, risky stunt involving Rudy Giuliani, a hotel bedroom, and the untucked shirt that’s garnered media attention days before and immediately after the release of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm on Amazon Prime.
Cohen, of course, has more in mind when it comes to indicting Trump’s America. Not only does Cohen-as-Borat show up at a “March for Our Rights Rally” in Olympia, Washington as a country singer leading a gullible, far-right crowd in anti-democratic chants along with his character, he also tackles Pizzagate and QAnon via a couple of far-right “friends” he makes during a brief separation from Tutar (planned, of course). Even as Cohen and Borat allow his new friends to figuratively hang themselves with their own hatred, bigotry, and conspiracy-mongering, he paradoxically shows their human side too, their willingness to treat a foreigner with an odd accent and ignorance of American culture and its not-quite-arcane rituals with gentleness and generosity (he leverages Tutar’s sudden disappearance into convincing them to help in her search).
An Indictment of Trump’s America
Whether, however, they or anyone Cohen specifically targets in Borat Subsequent Film deserve our sympathy, let alone our empathy when they repeatedly, willingly engage in the bigotry that reveals their unspoken allegiance to White (male) supremacy is up to the audience and their generosity (or lack thereof) towards those Americans who arguably don’t deserve any. The wince-inducing jabs and stabs of humor aimed in their general direction, however, are rarely less than well-deserved, Withering mockery, especially in the service of social, political, or cultural satire, has an important place in American or Western comedy. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a timely reminder that it’s practically a necessity for American democracy and whether it’ll continue to survive in its current form.