By Harry Westergaard
Sacha Baron Cohen could justifiably be called the comedian of the millennial generation. He’s become something of a hero for people in the age-group with his righteous pranking of stodgy politicians and bigoted americans. With projects such as the Da Ali-G Show and Borat, he’s made a career out of shrewdly combining a modern fixation with “gotcha moments” with the generation’s increased awareness and contempt for political corruption.
I’m not as passionate for Cohen’s comedy or the original Borat film as some of my peers are, but I find it fascinating as a student of comedy history. His work represents a return to the absurd character-based comedy of old (think Chaplin, Fields, and especially Peter Sellers) as opposed to the situational comedy revolving around the doldrums of everyday life popularized by Judd Apatow’s dominance in the scene. Borat is an iconic comedian creation in the tradition of the aforementioned figures, but one who could have only been born in the 21st century. We seldom see comedians put this much work into disappearing into their creations these days. Buster Keaton had the splendor of his breath-taking physical stunts, and in his own way Cohen is bringing the thrill back to comedy in a new politically charged context with his stunt interviews.
By the very nature of stunt-based comedy, I often find myself appreciating his work more for the effort that went into it than for the jokes. Sadly, I can’t even say I appreciate the effort in Cohen’s latest effort. Boart Subsequent Moviefilm (Woliner, 2020) is the long-awaited follow-up to the 2006 modern classic. A lot has changed politically in the time that has elapsed since the original film. On the surface, it might seem like the perfect playground for Borat’s signature antics. The sad truth of this is it's a spineless retread of what we’ve seen before. It can be lumped in a niche subgenre that has sprung up in the last couple years: sequels to early 2000s political films branded around Trump. See also, Fahrenheit 11/9 (Moore, 2018) and An Inconvenient Sequel (Cohen and Shenk, 2017). These films offer us no new insights into our current political situation or their respective filmmakers. Instead, they come across as cash grabs targeting angry liberals who want to be told what they already know.
The audience is treated to more or less the same schtick from the first film but lacking the edge and focus. Each individual scene of the original felt like it said something about a certain aspect or subgroup of American culture. Subsequent Moviefilm is ostensibly about Trump’s America, but it gets bogged down in the main characters’ eventual disillusionment about their own racist government. Borat and his newly discovered daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakolva) reach some shocking revelations about their own worldview. The daughter discovers women’s rights and Borat learns that Jewish people aren't evil. The parallels to our own culture are obvious to the point of didacticism. It’s lines like “...any man should like you the way you are, you shouldn’t try to be anyone else,” (spoken by Tutor's american caretaker) betray the film as more heavily-scripted than it’s largely improvised predecessor. These aren’t bad messages to preach at all, they are just clumsily delivered and not in the spirit of Cohen’s comedy. In the original film, the satire always came from Cohen’s performative trickery.
His trickery largely falls flat here. In one scene, Borat disrupts a Mike Pence speech dressed as Donald Trump. In the buildup to the scene, I found myself getting excited for the cathartic humiliation of Mike Pence. This is what I came to the movie for. However, after a few confused reaction shots from the crowd and Pence, Borat is immediately thrown out. It isn’t outrageous enough to be funny, nor does it serve any real satirical purpose.
Then there’s the now-infamous Rudy Giuliani scene, offering a similar problem as it almost works as an expose but fails to elicit any laughs. Robbie Collin, writing for The Telegraph, says of the scene, “It is amusing enough to watch Giuliani scramble for the exit when Borat thunders into the hotel room in a pink leotard, but the laughter seldom swells to the gales of appalled glee that the best Baron Cohen productions tend to elicit, and only a couple skits fall into the gobsmacking bracket.” I would go a step further than Collin and wager than none of the skits in the film fall into the gobsmacking bracket.
Perhaps that’s the result of the current political climate, where everything is so overtly grotesque that making jokes about it feels moot. Devika Girish of The New York Times says of Subsequent Moviefilm’s antics, “... at a time when those in power flaunt their misogyny this faith in the persuasive efforts of public shaming strikes me as misplaced.” Why does Cohen need to do all of this work to publicly shame these politicians if they do it themselves on an almost daily basis? Why, also, would he go to great lengths to bring the Borat character back when he’s so recognizable that he has to don a number of disguises in the film? The answer to these questions probably has something to do with the massive amounts of money a sequel to his most popular creation is bound to bring in. The film ends with a call to action: “Now vote, or you will be execute (sic).” The plea rings hollow when one considers that the film’s target audience is largely people who don’t need to be swayed by the film’s comedy.
Cohen still has biting satire left in him (one need only look at his recent 2018 series Who is America?). None of that is present in this latest film. His targets inarguably deserve the Sacha Baron Cohen treatment, but one constantly gets the sense that he could’ve gone further, could’ve been more uncompromising. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm offers a couple light chuckles, but mostly had me questioning the purpose of this movie and the potency of Cohen’s signature brand of humor.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Dir. Jason Woliner, Amazon Studios, 2020, film
Collin, Robbie. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Review: Trump Rallies, Ugly Songs and Some Truly Rotten Jokes.” The Telegraph [London, England], 21 Oct. 2020, www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/borat-subsequent-moviefilm-review-trump-rallies-ugly-songs-truly.
Girish, Devika. “‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ Review: More Cultural Learnings.” Https://Www.Nytimes.Com/#publisher [New York City, NY], 26 Oct. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/10/21/movies/borat-subsequent-moviefilm-review.html.