At one point in Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow up to Borat (2006), Borat Subsequent Movie Film (aka Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), the pandemic hits and our hero ends up holed up in a remote (yet spacious and well appointed) cabin with two guys, who tell Borat earnestly that Hillary Clinton kidnaps children to drink their blood and harvest adrenochrome. It’s a scene that makes us ask an internal question we probably never did the first time around: who is performing for who here?
In the first installment, on the heels of HBO’s Da Ali G Show, the American version of the already wildly popular guerilla prank show Cohen had been doing in the UK, the boundaries between staged and spontaneous were already a little blurry. What must he have told these people to get them to appear? But for the most part we could trust that people’s reactions to this simple, backwards foreigner from a mysterious former Soviet Stan were more or less genuine. Cohen played on the West’s casual assumptions about the former Eastern Bloc (mixed with genuine ignorance and trusting instincts) to expose their receptiveness to misogyny, superstitious Anti-Semitism, and poop — but also their general friendliness and willingness to help a fellow man. Getting an entire mega church to participate in a call and response by calling out “Do Jesus love my retard brother?” was a signature bit (along with the tamer but funnier, “Do Jesus love my neighbor Nusultan Tuliakhbar? —Nobody love my neighbor Nusultan Tuliakhbar!”)
This exposure of ugly strains in the national character was what got the most ink, even if it wasn’t the number one goal — Cohen is a humanist anarchist and subversive by nature, but I suspect that for the former student of French master-clown Philippe Gaulier (yes, Cohen attended a “prestigious French clown school”), laughs and spectacle trump politics, if only slightly. The thrill of discovering something new about our fellow man, good or bad, was a big part of Borat‘s appeal. You never quite knew what was going to happen. Whether it be a rodeo crowd’s half-cheering reaction to “I hope George W. Bush kills every man, woman, and child in Iraq, down to the lizards!” or a driving instructor who mostly just treats a horny Borat with kindness, good advice, and straightforward humanity. (“Look, you can’t do that here, okay?”)
In Borat Subsequent Movie Film, whose ostensible plot is about a now-disgraced Borat Sagdiev trying to deliver a famous chimp porn star to Mike Pence as a gift from the Kazakh premier, not only has casual racism and misogyny in public become far less shocking, but it’s much, much harder to tell who is performing for the camera. In the 14 years since the first movie, the kind of conservatism Cohen seems to delight in exposing has gone from at least somewhat ideological to almost entirely performative. It was always fairly hypocritical, but these days absolutely no one is buying that God and country crap from people lining up behind a thrice-divorced WWE heel in a billowy suit whose disrespect of veterans has spawned at least five separate controversies. What once may have at least seemed like genuine belief is now transparently just a cudgel.
The footage of Cohen that leaked out prior to release saw him performing at a right-wing rally. In the movie, we can now see Borat (disguised as a character called, amazingly, “Country Steve”) surrounded by people open carrying assault rifles, walking around in military fatigues, clad in your bog-standard pro-Trump, anti-Dem t-shirts, and other regalia. It feels, as it almost always does these days, more like a group of people LARPing in a park than a political gathering. Politics has goals and desired outcomes. These people are merely solidifying identity. Trump is a television character to them, and they enjoy the show. They bond over their shared enjoyment of the show.
There is no ideology beyond antagonism toward a perceived enemy — which is to say, I doubt any of them would even be there without the possibility of libs to trigger. Which is further to say, they’re all doing a Borat bit now, playing a character to get a rise out people or to prove a point. The people Sacha Baron Cohen delights in provoking have spent the last 14 years desperately trying to become the provocateurs.
So when two “country” looking guys (who like almost all supposedly working-class Trump fanatics appear to be driving around in $40,000 trucks) try to explain how and why Hillary Clinton harvests children, the shock isn’t so much “wow I can’t believe someone believes this” it’s “how far are these guys willing to go for the bit?”
What did Borat tell these guys that made them want to host him at their house and sign the waiver? Surely it was more than just them being nice. These kinds of questions require answers more in 2020 than they did in 2006. They don’t seem like bystanders anymore. Meanwhile, when Borat goes to a debutante ball at one point, I could’ve sworn I saw one of the guys from the first Borat‘s Southern society dinner there (the guy on the far right in this picture). What the hell did they tell that guy to get him to participate twice? I’m genuinely curious.
Cohen is still the same genius he was before, a David Blaine character who shrinks from no celebrity or situation, who will not only put himself in legitimate danger for a bit (literally doing comedy at the point of a gun, and not for the first time), but always seems to have the perfect one-liner queued up for maximum effect — like assuring Rudy Giuliani of his “tight back pussy.” Mostly it’s the world that has changed. For that and a handful of other reasons (like that Borat is too famous to do bits as Borat now, and not wanting to repeat himself, and probably a COVID-abbreviated shooting schedule) Cohen has to work a little harder for laughs now. Or even for surprise. He was always at least as much a social experiment as he was a comedian and these days staging a social experiment is complicated by the feeling that we’re all living in a social experiment all the time.
There’s also the fact that decent-sized chunks of this movie don’t even have Cohen in them. His daughter, Sandra Jessica Parker Sagdiev-Drummond (played by Maria Bakalova) does the heavy lifting in two or three scenes as Borat’s bumpkin daughter, who dreams of “a fancy wife cage” like Melania’s and has been schooled to fear the teeth in her vagine. That she can create situations every bit as awkward as Cohen, the kind that make you cover your eyes but keep watching, is a testament to her poise and bravery. It takes a special kind of person to be able to see those situations through. Yet she’s not quite Sacha Cohen — lacking the same sense of perfect one-liner — because… well, no one is.
When Borat Subsequent Movie Film is on, it’s as transfixing as ever. You don’t watch it like you would comedy, expecting regular and consistent laughs. You watch it like you would porn, where you know all the wonder and spontaneity are mostly staged but remain transfixed regardless, anticipating those fleeting moments when the mask slips off and a character’s true feelings are revealed. There are longer stretches where that doesn’t come (heh), but that’s mostly okay. Just as before, Borat uncovers craziness and kindness in almost equal measure — one moment with a Holocaust survivor in a synagogue, in particular, was so sweet (contrived or not) that it almost brought me to tears.
Yet if Borat Subsequent Movie Film feels scattered in comparison to its predecessor, that’s perhaps because the American body politic isn’t nearly as coherent as it once was. It’s hard not to feel like Walter from The Big Lebowski looking back on the Bush years — substituting neocons for “the man in the black pajamas,” a “worthy f*ckin’ adversary.” Say what you will about the tenets of vulgar imperialism, dude, at least it was an ethos. Turns out, it’s a lot harder to expose a belief system that is essentially nihilistic.