Borat Sagdiyev is both a 150-pound goofball and a 500-pound guerrilla who believed his 2006 cultural chronicle of the “U.S. and A” would curry favored-nation status for his native Kazakhstan. Instead, it took the country right past the butt of the joke and straight into its “ah-noose,” as Borat would say. Exports of potassium and pubis plummeted, Kazakhstan’s economy cratered and Borat was condemned to a lifetime of prison labor.
But a lot can change in 14 years. Just how much? Well, “McDonald Trump” winning the U.S. presidency prompts a change of heart for Kazakh leaders, who free Borat and send him back to America on a mission representing our nation’s deeply distorted view of diplomacy these days. Borat’s charge is to impress Vice President Mike Pence with a present he cannot refuse and gain Kazakhstan admission into the administration’s “Strongman Club” among world leaders. Their can’t-miss plan involves the nation’s most popular film actor. But it goes awry when Borat’s teen daughter, Tutar (whom he has only just met), stows away on the trip and … well, you’ll see.
So goes the setup to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — a title that occasionally changes, but never shortens, across 96 new minutes with Sacha Baron Cohen’s signature satirical character and his spitfire new creation of Tutar Sagdiyev. (The film premieres Friday, streaming on Amazon Prime Video and screening at select drive-ins.)
Subsequent Moviefilm is the first time Cohen has broken the 90-minute barrier in any of his six starring-role comedies. You do feel the length, however fleetingly. Borat’s treatment of Tutar with a babysitter is meant to incite incredulous laughter, but it also feels incongruous after a previous moment of parental tenderness. (If not a heart, exactly, Borat at least develops a conscience.)
There are also inconsistencies in this installment’s meta hook that Borat has become too ubiquitous in the United States to run his usual playbook of immersive, blindsiding journalism; he’s even been immortalized in an unlicensed costume called “Stupid Foreign Reporter.” Armed with fat suits and a bin full of “assorted noses,” Borat adopts personas like Cliff Safari or Country Steve on his latest odyssey across America. They are no more convincing than Rami Malek’s get-up as Freddie Mercury and, from a character perspective, play like castoffs from Cohen’s short-lived Showtime series Who is America? (Side note: That show is worth checking out, if only for Cohen’s jaw-dropping gun-advocacy bit as Israeli counterterrorist expert Erran Morad.) But Cohen only sometimes assumes these aliases; as the film goes on, he dons disguises far less often — either confident that the real people he’s razzing won’t recognize him or perhaps simply in the presence of paid performers who are well-camouflaged.
Subsequent Moviefilm goes a few rounds longer than its immediate predecessor. But at least it finds Cohen again connecting his punches as a potent comic lead, a definitive rebound from the sitcom synthetics of The Dictator or the desperation heave of Grimsby. Of course, Cohen has put himself back into well-layered, and well-lawyered, territory — crafting plenty of bits that required six signatures and initials while appropriately weaponizing Borat, now well versed in the ways of the west, for the weary woes of today.
You can imagine how a scene that starts with “I have a baby inside of me and I need to get it out” becomes a yes-and buffet of improvisation for Cohen and Maria Bakalova, exhibiting her own go-for-broke gall as Tutar. The animated film that inspires Tutar’s dreams is uproarious, Beauty and the Beast indeed. For a barbershop bit, Cohen resurrects rhythms from one of Borat’s best deleted scenes. An inappropriate original song here (concerning COVID-19) is still a stunner even if parts of it leaked online months ago. And yes, this means Borat and Tutar navigate North America amid a pandemic, which precipitates a narrative quarantine gag and a credited COVID compliance crew of equal number to the makeup gang. (To hear an emotionless stooge like Pence rattle off such foolhardy pride in his team’s early COVID response, and gaze in horror at where we are now, is as damning as any of the satirical slings and arrows.)
Cohen’s list of offscreen collaborators combines the familiar and the fresh. The original film’s Oscar-nominated co-writers, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines and Dan Mazer, all return, and new director Jason Woliner knows masterful cringe comedy from his tenure on Comedy Central’s Nathan For You. Most notably, Cohen has added three female writers, South Park producer Erica Rivinoja, 30 Rock writer Nina Pedrad and Daily Show producer Jena Friedman. And the film is smart enough to turn entire segments over to Tutar — who wastes no time catching up on the bombardment of bad and barbaric ideas that America’s patriarchy gives to women about their bodies and their opportunities.
“What your daddy has told you about is not the real world,” Tutar is told in a line that stands well outside any absurd illustrations in Borat’s manual on how to raise a daughter. Meanwhile, Cohen and company capture moments of revulsion from everyday women that only reinforce why America’s ruling party has resorted to pleading with suburban females to like them ahead of the 2020 election. It’s no secret that Cohen hopes we can all see through their bullshit in a couple of weeks. The whole existence of a second Borat film constitutes an October surprise, and the film closes with an entreaty to vote that plays both like a funny joke and a deadly serious warning. Cohen isn’t so naive to believe that cheekiness alone will cut with any clarity. Through Tutar and her pursuit of independence, Subsequent Moviefilm reminds us that strong women are the future we need — and will get if we don’t mess it up. It also makes us feel OK about chortling through this hellscape because maybe we aren’t hopelessly screwed … at least not yet.