Friday, October 23, 2020


The vulgar genius of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, the backwards foreign journalist hailing from a broad stereotype of a third-world country, who first appeared in the early-aughts comedy interview series Da Ali G Show before starring in his own hit film in 2006, is in getting people to expose their subterranean ugliness. His first film found him meandering America, skewering our country’s hypocrites’ morals and mores by revealing all sorts of prejudices. He surgically targeted the obtuse and the unsuspecting, who time and again revealed supreme patience, albeit in their patronizing attitudes toward other countries by, say, believing that a Kazakh would drink water out of a toilet. Still others were all-too eager to nod along with his endless stream of misogyny, anti-Semitism, and eagerly dance as he giddily fiddled with their own xenophobic assumptions confirmed. All that, a deep commitment to a cracked improv character, and an instant-classic comedy catchphrase machine, too? (You can still faintly hear the “My wiiife”s and “high-fiiive”s echoing across the culture.) How lucky we were to have a movie, however uneven, that brought this concoction to us, with elaborate dirty Candid Camera scenarios that escalated to the wildest gags and can-hardly-believe-what-I’m-seeing-or-hearing moments of high-wire tension and explosive laughter. That he did it again, with the less iconic, but no less outrageous Bruno, a flamboyant razor’s-edge confrontation with homophobia, is a feat of gonzo comedy chops. I’m glad he’s out there doing his thing.

Alas, the problem with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is that Americans don’t have much ugliness hidden anymore. It’s all out in the open. A joke of this surprise sequel is that, no matter how extreme Borat goes, some individual is ready to happily accept him into the fold. Why, even walking into CPAC in a Klan hood gets him a few puzzled looks, but hardly an uproar. We live in a time where stupid political stunts — the faker the better — are the right wing currency, and a social media environment where a lie is a good as the truth and the optics, no matter how strained, are trotted out like actual substance. Truly, the political discourse is as debased as it has ever been. How is Borat to compete? This time around, he’s in disguise as an American most of the time, in a transparently fake fat suit and sloppily pasted jowls and facial hair. He says it’s because he’s too well known, an amusing meta commentary on the dozen years of speculation on how he could possibly follow-up his previous film’s unexpected jolts. His shtick is still funny, but more scattershot, and gains welcome novelty from inventing a new character. This time he’s brought his daughter along. She’s an exuberant match—game actress Maria Bakalova sloshing around a similarly phony accent, and eager to match her father in extreme prejudice, gross-out gags, and preposterous miscommunications. They make quite a pair.

Though the movie as a whole —sloppily photographed and slapped together for an authentic guerrilla style—hangs together less than one would hope, there are a handful of big, cringing laughs to be found here. There’s a squirming sequence in a Crisis Pregnancy Center in which a straight-faced evangelical pastor studiously avoids obvious implications of incest in order to affirm “God’s plan.” (Of course he doesn’t know the “baby inside her” is a tiny plastic cupcake topper.) There’s a debutante ball in which the old men slobber along with Borat’s objectification of the daughters. There’s a dress shop where the owner doubles-over in overly-accommodating laughter when Borat asks for the “no means yes” section. And it culminates in a much-buzzed about sequence in which the daughter gets an interview with Rudy Guliiani that ends in him asking for her phone number as he lays back on a hotel bed with his hand down his pants. For every riotously hilarious stunt, there’s a lot of downtime and setup, or a misfiring disgusting detail. (The joke of a crowd staring in horror at a dress drenched in menstrual blood was beyond me.) And it’s never exactly clear what the film thinks it’s exposing. That a right-wing protest will cheer a racist song about wanting Obama locked up and injected with the flu? Of course they would. So the movie doesn’t have the shock value, or the novelty. But it does have the perversely appealing Borat, whose elaborate burlesque of Otherness and rampant resistance of progressive values finds some strange sweetness at times. He comes by his ignorance honestly, and actually does want to learn and improve himself, however circuitous and perhaps futile the route. It makes the resolutely ignorant of our country look all the worse in comparison. Its final joke is on them.

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