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Theater of the Not-So-Absurd

Borat is back. But can he compete with the political theater that is Donald Trump?

Abe Callard

Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm—also known by its full and proper title, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan—is the sequel to Cohen’s hit 2006 mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The sequel, streaming on Amazon since its online release, has already (a) thrown Rudy Giuliani headfirst into a sex scandal, (b) prompted a lawsuit against Cohen, and (c) moved the Kazakh American Association to accuse him of promoting "racism, cultural appropriation, and xenophobia."

The film has also been widely praised by critics and audiences as a savage critique of Donald Trump's America.

This is standard fare for Baron Cohen. Ever since Da Ali G Show, his first foray into the satirical prank-interview format he pioneered, he's arguably been America's foremost provocateur. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, alongside his successful acting career, he has pranked unsuspecting Americans while disguised as one of his many ridiculous characters, of whom Borat is far and away the most famous. His Wikipedia page has an entire section devoted to all the lawsuits brought against him; Cohen's movies take place as much outside the movie theater as inside.

So, it's no surprise that the newest Borat has already provoked controversy. But is it any good?

Let’s look back at what made the original Borat such a runaway success. Borat I was both critically adored and enormously popular. Made on an $18 million budget, it grossed more than $260 million. Nasal imitations of Borat's iconic catchphrases—Oksana, "my wiiiife;" "wawaweewa" (not his wife), among others—wormed their way into conversations across the country.

Borat was popular among different groups of people for different reasons. Normal Americans loved it primarily because of its incendiary caricature of a backwards foreign journalist who cheerfully spouts racist, sexist, homophobic ideas as if they were commonly accepted truths—the perfect emblem for everything modern progressivism has fought and despised. “In Kazakhstan,” Borat explains, “it is illegal for five women to be in same place, except for in brothel or in grave.” Furthermore, AIDS can be prevented by “carrying around a bottle of gypsy tears.”

Borat drinks behind the steering wheel, masturbates in public, washes his face in the toilet, and kisses his sister on the lips. The small Kazakhstani backwater from which he hails (the scenes were actually filmed in an unwitting Romanian village) is hell on earth, with gun-toting kindergartners and rapists roaming the streets. When Borat comes to America, he frolics about Manhattan in wide-eyed glee, marveling at how big and nice everything is. People enjoyed his character in part because it made them proud to be American (at least I'm not that benighted; at least my country doesn't suck that much). Simultaneously, it allowed them to indulge in a set of ideas that progressivism had made taboo.

Ironically, critics approved of Borat for exactly the opposite reason. They laughed not at Borat but at the American darkness he inadvertently exposed in the course of his bumbling exploits. When Borat asks a car dealer how fast he needs to drive a car to kill a group of gypsies, what's notable is not the offensiveness of the question but the straight-faced answer it provokes ("with this vehicle right here, probably going thirty-five, forty miles per hour would do it"). When he suggests to a Texas rodeo manager that all gay people should be hanged, the manager's cheerful response ("That's what we're trying to get done here!") is more shocking than the question. A group of frat bros tells Borat that slavery should be brought back. A gun store owner informs him that a "nine millimeter or a forty-five" would probably be the best gun for killing Jews.

The film's message seems to be that American bigotry is still there, albeit hidden under the surface. All it takes to dredge it up is the cooperation of a fellow bigot. Borat lampoons our hubris in thinking we can overcome our prejudices just by changing the superficial tone of public dialogue.

This kind of exposé of America's hidden prejudices—I suspect most Borat-lovers don’t care about it in the slightest—was especially sharp in the 1990s and 2000s. American politics had haphazardly coalesced into a single, dominant neoliberal status quo in which the policies of Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush appeared to be just a stone's throw away from one another. Once-explicit bigotries had in many places been papered over by political correctness. For Baron Cohen (an Englishman, no less!) to claim that these persistent problems still lurked in the American psyche was about as fierce as satire can get.

Flash-forward to October 23, 2020, when Subsequent Moviefilm was released. Trump-era America looks very different from Bush-era America (Amazon streaming is the least of it). So, how does Baron Cohen adapt Borat to the many, many changes that have taken place in the fourteen years since the original?

From the first few scenes we can see ways in which he is forced to adapt. Because Borat was such a smash, Baron Cohen is mobbed by fans as soon as he steps out onto a New York street in character as Borat; this makes the prospect of pranking regular Americans difficult. To combat his burdensome fame, Cohen dons several new disguises over his Borat costume, in order to safely and anonymously stir up mayhem.

But it’s not the same mayhem we remember from the first Borat. Baron Cohen ridicules Trump's camaraderie with Putin and Bolsonaro; his general philandering (particularly his affair with porn star Stormy Daniels); the indictments of Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Steve Bannon, and Paul Manafort; and various other farcical political events of the past few years. These are front-page-of-the-New-York-Times stories, not latent prejudices. Baron Cohen has been forced to shift his angle because American politics has shifted. Borat was a caricature whose offensive behavior made Americans drop their guard and engage in bigotry themselves; but Donald Trump, since the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2016, has done Borat's job for him—in other words, has supplanted Borat as the preeminent political jester of our time.

This is the problem with a Borat sequel’s arriving in the midst of our 2020 political circus—a circus is absurd enough on its own. In Subsequent Moviefilm, Borat goes into a cake shop and orders a cake with "Jews Will Not Replace Us" inscribed in icing (with a smiley face underneath). But "Jews will not replace us" was a line openly chanted by thousands at the Charlottesville march. We hardly need Borat to bring it into the daylight.

In the original Borat, Baron Cohen’s offensive language was genuinely shocking. He talked about killing gypsies, hanging gay people, and marrying your sister as if they were polite topics of conversation. Now we're all too numb to find these jokes anything but commonplace. Scenes like Borat’s wearing KKK robes and announcing, "I'm Stephen Miller," or talking about QAnon with a bunch of right-wing conspiracy theorists, have the same problem: Borat is now an observer, not a provocateur.

Subsequent Moviefilm is not a total misfire. There are traces of what made the original film so brilliant: A scene involving a cupcake and an anti-abortion obstetrician is genuinely hilarious (you had to have been there). There are on-brand one-liners scattered throughout (Borat walks into a synagogue disguised as a grotesque Jewish caricature and declares, "Nice weather we've been controlling!"). On the whole, though, his character just isn't the right tool for making fun of our current political predicament.

Early in Subsequent Moviefilm, Borat returns to the United States and is instantly recognized on the street by everyday Americans. Something that was hidden in 2006 is now plainly obvious to everyone. We don't need another bumbling bigot to remind us.

Abe Callard is a Chicago-based writer and filmmaker.

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