Another Borat movie shouldn’t exist. Not because “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is bad, but because Sacha Baron Cohen’s infamous troublemaker seems too recognisable to pull off the same stunts he did in 2006. Back then, Borat and his boxy gray suit (or was it blue?) were anonymous enough to trick unsuspecting locals into showing how much intolerance they were willing to tolerate. The entire thing was a litmus test for participants and moviegoers alike, a study in offensive stereotypes weaponised to provoke reactions. The joke was on us, and it was too specific to repeat.
And yet here we are.
Premiering Friday on Amazon Prime Video, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” resurrects its titular Kazakh journalist to confront the seismic changes the United States has undergone in the intervening years. Borat’s latest mission? To deliver a gift to someone in Donald Trump’s inner circle — he decides it’ll be “ladies’ man” Mike Pence — so America will consider Kazakhstan an ally. Even though Trump peddles some of the same prejudices, Borat can’t present the souvenir directly to the president because of that one time he defecated outside a Trump tower. The “souvenir” turns out to be his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (hilarious 24-year-old newcomer Maria Bakalova), who is trained to believe that women belong in cages and who is described as “too old” for Rudy Giuliani.
The question any Borat fan (or nonfan) wants to know is whether the sequel is funny, to which I respond in the affirmative. Baron Cohen’s quick-witted fish-out-of-water humour still excels, for the most part, and at times it can feel particularly pointed given America’s current condition. En route to a conservative convention where Pence will downplay COVID-19 concerns, Borat visits a social media influencer who touts the “sugar baby” lifestyle, a dress saleswoman who cracks up when Borat asks where he can find the “‘no means yes’ section,” a cosmetic surgeon who offers to give Tutar a nose job and breast augmentation for $22,000, and a pair of macho conspiracy theorists who blame the coronavirus on Bill Clinton. The somewhat cruel tension derived from duping people who don’t know they’re part of a mockumentary is still entertaining. Borat circumnavigates the fame monster by dressing incognito.
But for all of Baron Cohen’s insensitive posturing, these movies contain a surprisingly humanistic through line. Entering scenarios with Americans who believe he really is just some foreign reporter with a garbled accent, Baron Cohen lets racists be racist and misogynists be misogynistic. But he also encounters a handful of folks who do nothing of the sort. In the first “Borat” film, he found a group of Alabamans who patiently explained rudimentary restroom etiquette despite his coarse antics. In “Subsequent Moviefilm,” he meets two sweet Jewish ladies who embrace him even though he is wearing a long plastic nose and talons. When he leaves Tutar in the care of a babysitter, she shows genuine interest in the girl’s wellbeing and teaches her that women have rights.
Sometimes these encouraging exchanges get lost in the “Borat” discourse, especially given how many lawsuits arose after the original became a commercial smash. But they’re even more important this time around, partly because the everyday bigotry coursing through the film feels far less novel than it did circa 2006. Baron Cohen’s jokes hinge on the idea that America does not recognize its own provincialism, but that has been the subtext of late-night quips, John Oliver gags and viral tweets for the past four years. It’s not surprising to see a crowd cheer as Borat sings off-key about how Barack Obama should go to jail. What is surprising is that Borat returns to the babysitter’s home later in the movie, after COVID-19 has spread, and she still takes the time to show him compassion when she doesn’t have to.
Humanism aside, we have to talk about one scene in particular: the one with Giuliani. Maybe you’ve already heard about it. Late in the film, Tutar poses as a very bad television journalist who lands an interview with a very willing Giuliani. She goads him into flirting (not that it takes much effort) and eventually asks if he’d like to have a drink with her in a nearby bedroom. There, she encourages him to untuck his shirt, and suddenly his hand is reaching inside his pants, until Borat bursts in and interrupts. It is a damning moment for Giuliani, who appears oblivious to his own creepiness.
That moment explains the ethos of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Baron Cohen aims higher with his targets than he did before, clearly anxious to explore Trump-era sensibilities as our prelude to the 2020 election comes to a close. His non-“Borat” work has been spotty, but this particular iteration of his satire still has a lot to say for anyone mature enough to grasp it. Even when the material isn’t as fresh and sophisticated as it was 14 years ago, there’s an ingenuity to what Baron Cohen is doing. And if nothing else, his commitment to the bit is impressive. Apparently, he spent five days in character while quarantining with the conspiracy theorists.
Comedy’s drastically changed intuitions about what will pass muster are another reason a “Borat” sequel seemed unlikely. Mainstream movies — the kind that once would get nationwide multiplex releases, at least — are now designed to be as inoffensive as possible. Yet here’s one trafficking in humor that is nakedly anti-Semitic, jingoistic, racist, homophobic and/or misogynistic. I’m shocked a major corporation was willing to back Baron Cohen’s shamelessness, which can be so easily misinterpreted. Then again, COVID-19 theater closures aside, it’s telling that Fox — the studio behind the original, since acquired by toothless Disney — had nothing to do with the new film’s existence. A streaming service less reliant on box-office figures picked up the torch instead. Of course.
Directed by Jason Woliner, whose credits include sitcom “Parks and Recreation” and popular Adult Swim farces, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” defies a lot of what Hollywood wants from its comedies in the age of social media backlash. But what I keep coming back to is the fact that Borat does (sort of) learn how to be a better person by the sequel’s end. It’s not preachy or overly contrived, nor is it wildly unique. But it’s a necessary evolution for a character who is finally realizing that he’s not the king of the castle.