Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
By Palmer Rubin
Comedy sequels are usually not very good, especially when they arrive at least a decade after the original. Dumb and Dumber To, Little Fockers, The Hangover Part II & III, you name it, it’s probably a film trying to copy the formula. At this point, its performers have gotten so old that it’s more desperate than anything else.
Given Sacha Baron Cohen’s output after his breakout hit, one would assume he would continue this trend. If any film is an example of both its performer and its audience not getting the joke at the same time, it’s Borat. Cohen clearly didn’t expect the responses he got the first time around (though he obviously rolled with it). Rewatching Borat a few days before seeing Subsequent Moviefilm cemented to me that it’s not a comedy: it’s a horror film. Borat is the most well-adjusted person in the entire film, that’s as close to a joke as it gets. It struck a cord with people, a million middle schoolers would launch into renditions of Borat’s intentionally broken English. You couldn’t walk anywhere without some jackass yelling “my wife!” or “great success!” without any context. It felt genuinely transgressive, it infuriated people, it felt countercultural in a way few things in the 2000s are. Unlike South Park, which had already reached the point where it was weakly reacting to topical events Saturday Night Live-style, Borat actually finds some meaning in its vulgarity, at least. Thus it’s Sacha Baron Cohen who has achieved some sort of longevity, leaving Trey Parker and Matt Stone to continue infecting the planet with their proud mixture of libertarianism and nihilism. Thank every higher power out there Cohen is more of a progressive than that.
So the problem emerges as to how you should go about making a sequel, given that lightning won’t strike in a bottle twice. Cohen finds a couple ways around this: firstly, lean into the legacy of the first film and no longer make the onus of the joke surprising people. There’s quite a few sequences in the new one where the subjects are clearly aware of who he is and are playing along just so they can be in the movie. The joke is no longer catching people off guard but taking advantage of most people’s desperation for some kind of infamy. That makes the moments where it becomes apparent that it’s not faked even funnier in the most morbid possible way. Since so many of the subjects now know who he is (or at the very least, see him as an avenue to platform themselves), there’s actually a couple scenes where only a few people recognize him but nobody else does.
The second is to give him a proper foil, and he gets that through Maria Bakalova, playing his daughter Tutar. It’s already been said, but Bakalova is so fantastic here she actually outclasses Cohen himself, mainly because she goes way farther than he ever did in either film. A lot of the jokes are Borat and Tutar tricking onlookers into thinking they’re doing something way grosser than they’re actually doing (it’s that one joke from the Austin Powers movies taken to extremes, and it works far better than it has any right to), or taking advantage of how easily people can be set off by things that most people with brains wouldn’t be.
And so I was really surprised that I actually liked Subsequent Moviefilm more than the original. Cohen and the rest of the gang make the odd but welcome choice to make this film strangely wholesome in response to a decade’s worth of cringe comedy. It’s still through the intentionally distorted lens of the way Americans view foreigners (Cohen even addresses criticism of the first film by implying there are two separate Kazakhstans), but this older Borat and Tutar are, in their own twisted way, quite fond of each other, and the movie doesn’t really bother trying to hide the artificiality of it all. Of course you know sections with the two of them alone together bonding are faked, of course you know most of the interviews are faked. This makes the moment of genuine reactions hit even harder, and Subsequent Moviefilm decides to break precedent by not only having Borat interact with just the worst this country has to offer. Sure, you have your normalized bigotry (a baker casually writing “Jews Will Not Replace Us” on a cake is less about shock and more about how little it takes for people to show their asses), but also genuinely kind and caring people as well, which the film treats with unusual levels of respect. A lot of it is probably nudged the way reality TV is, but you do believe the moment when subjects remain kind in the face of Borat’s existence.
All of this is well and good, and enjoyable enough, though its strongest sequence for the first two-thirds is an attempt to give Tutar directly to Vice President Mike Pence in the middle of a Republican convention. I’m not gonna spoil how that goes, but that’s a standout sequence. The movie really kicks into high gear when it reveals that its last half an hour was the part filmed during the pandemic. The focus of the film completely switches (Cohen and Bakalova expose themselves to so many people that I don’t know how they survived), and if you’ve been keeping track of the news, it involves former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. As stated, it’s probably the most transgressive and horrifying moments in American cinema in quite some time, so much so that Cohen prematurely sabotages the entire sequence. The incident itself made national news in a much vaguer light when it first happened over the summer (Giuliani coughing and hacking constantly before things get really ugly is bad enough), but one really has to wonder how in the hell they expected Cohen not to show the unedited footage. Either way, I have no earthly idea how Bakalova got through all of that, effectively playing a parody of Tomi Lahren. In a just and fair universe, Giuliani would get some severe punishment in response to…what he does, but this is America, and he will probably be fine.
The last half hour was clearly completely retooled and in its desperation to finish filming, turns into probably the funniest thing Cohen has ever done as a performer. Not for that scene (which was genuinely terrifying in a way few things have scared me recently), really all of it is everyone throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sicks. It thusly makes Subsequent Moviefilm the first true COVID-era movie, the first motion picture to address how the pandemic has really made us all feel like we’re going insane, and how it’s those obsessively sticking to a warped version of normalcy who are the true lunatics. The way it ultimately ends feels like the best possible twist on the Borat formula, as it takes some gags from the original film and twists around the meaning for something rather more hopeful and optimistic than I was ever expecting from this kind of movie.
So yeah, I can’t believe I’m watching myself type out that the Borat sequel is better than the original, but it’s undeniable. I was only entertained by the original in fits and spurts, but this finds a way to make cringe comedy wholesome and never punches down. One can only hope for the worst to happen to Rudy Giuliani in response. Christ, looking at that man makes me want to puke.
As for Maria Bakalova, she might be the single bravest performer out there right now. Sacha Baron Cohen clearly agrees, as the last moments they share on camera is him breaking character for the very first time in his career.