Sacha Baron Cohen retired his anti-semitic fake Kazakh TV journalist after the first Borat movie, 14 years ago, reasoning that when someone is that well known the joke – unsuspecting members of the public gulled into compromising situations – won’t work any more.
So he either felt the time was right or he needed the money his most famous creation can raise – make benefit the Baron Cohen bank account – and out Borat is wheeled for what is essentially a re-run of the first film.
That had a quest structure – Borat searching for Pamela Anderson – and so has this, except this time Borat is crossing the USA to meet Vice President Mike Pence, hoping to gift him chimpanzee Johnny the Monkey (Kazakhstan’s “Minister of Culture and number-one porno star”) in an attempt to repair relations between the two countries, damaged to such an extent by Borat’s first foray to the US, we’re told, that he’s spent the intervening years breaking rocks in a gulag.
The preamble is a brilliant bit of plotting because it legitimises Borat being in disguise (he looks uncannily like Inspector Clouseau trying to go incognito) for much of the film, which allows Baron Cohen to essentially pull off the same stunts as before unrecognised.
One of the unexpected bonuses of the first film was Ken Davitian, very funny as Borat’s producer, Azamat. His function is now taken by Maria Bakalova as Borat’s daughter, Tutta, who smuggles herself to America to be closer to her indifferent father.
Bakalova gets more to do than Davitian ever did, and rewards Baron Cohen’s trust with a balls-out performance matching his for audacity and bravery, particularly the scene where she takes to the stage to invite a meeting of Christian Republican women to join her in touching their “vagine”.
“McDonald” Trump and his administration are a running thread, which is going to date things who-knows-how-quickly (polling is already underway for the presidential elections as I type), and at one point Borat and his daughter, in a fake interview scenario, get a well known official into what looks like the beginnings of a classic honey trap. The lawyers, surely, have been all over this.
More generally, even as covid 19 empties the streets, the Great American Public (the Republican women included) again come across as warm, trusting and friendly, their blunders more to do with being too accommodating than malicious. A pro-life pregnancy clinic, a debutante ball, a cosmetic surgeon and a synagogue are among the places visited and most of them come out of it pretty well. Though who knows how many interactions ended abruptly because the mark wouldn’t play along. The cops were called in over 90 times during the making of the original film, apparently.
Is it funny though? I laughed within 30 seconds of it starting and snorted regularly throughout, even though the film outstays its welcome – all Baron Cohen films do – but then I am a sucker for sex jokes, of which there are a lot, though the incest and menstrual-blood gags are going to be too much for some.
One thing that separates it from the first film is the emotional arc – Borat learns something from his encounters and is changed by them, particularly his meeting with the two Jewish women in the synagogue, which starts out as through-the-fingers viewing (he’s “disguised” OMG-style in Borat’s conception of the typical Jew – Pinocchio schnoz, talons, bat wings) but ends up so profound that Baron Cohen almost breaks character.
And his relationship to his initially despised (useless because not a boy) daughter is touching too, which was possibly written in because Bakalova is simply so good, and, again, on a couple of occasions it almost looks as if Baron Cohen is going to break character to congratulate her on some moment of inspiration.
As for the jokes about Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen and his team of writers have decided to double down on those. I doubt the big “not based on the real Kazakhstan” disclaimer at the end is going to cut much ice. For Sacha Baron Cohen, the gulag beckons.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020