Tough times for journalists worldwide. Borat Sagdiyev was sentenced to break rocks with a pickaxe in a Kazak gulag, punishment for embarrassing his native land in the 2006 film Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
Fourteen years later, this once popular television figure is sprung to go on an important mission for Kazakhstan’s former despot Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu).
Nazabayev demands to know: why is Donald Trump cuddling dictators all over the world, and yet not him? Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — let’s agree to call it Borat 2 — has Sasha Baron Cohen’s tall, hairy and strangely accented voyager touring the USA from Texas to Washington state.
Borat is asked to bring Kazakhstan’s most popular celebrity (and most famous porn star) Johnny the Monkey, a chimpanzee, as a bribe for “Mikhael Pence.” Matters go south immediately — “Screw me in the anoos!” Borat curses. He learns that his 15 year old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) has stowed away in Johnny’s crate.
Being from a country where women are kept in “wife cages,” Borat has much to learn about teenage girls. And Tutar has an agenda of her own. She wants to meet a wealthy man who will make her the happiest woman in the world, just like Melania in her beautiful wife cage. (The animated version of this romance between King Donald and the first Slovenian Disney princess plays on her media viewer.)
She can’t bag Trump but she does get Rudy Giulani — that cat’s out of the bag. It’s bonkers stuff. The day-drinking Giuliani is well and truly honey-trapped on camera. It won’t be Giuliani’s last humiliation, but it’s certainly going to be hard to top this one.
This kind of prank-comedy is at best paroxysmal and at worst legally actionable. Note Judith Dim Evans, a holocaust survivor memorialized during the end titles. Her estate is suing the film; the claim is that the late Ms. Evans didn’t understand that the Jewish Baron Cohen was posing as a racist-fantasy version of a Jew. The fact that he’s holding a marionette with a little sign saying “Media” in one hand, and a money bag with a big dollar sign on it in the other might have tipped off some.
In 2006, when the original Borat came out, some of the more discerning critics worried over the moral question of using poverty-stricken Romanian villagers to play Kazakhs. Others thought that it would have been better if Baron Cohen had come up with an imaginary nation, as in that Lonely Planet parody guide to Molvania. It’s a shame more people saw the original Borat than they saw any of the artistic triumphs of the Romanian new wave. (When the original debuted, I tried to find out enough about Kazakh cinema to bluff about it. What I found was a quote by an authority named Vladimir Padunov who observed “recent Kazakh cinema is virtually unknown in Kazakhstan itself.”)
Once again, it’s a question of whether Baron Cohen and his writers are punching up or down. The answer, I believe, is that they are punching in all directions, with varying success.
Borat 2 is an off-again, on-again satire. One understands people who have no taste for this tastelessness, even — from the tenor of the complaints — if it seems some of them must have pity for Elmer Fudd when watching Bugs Bunny. If the Trumpers are the reliable target, as strong in gullibility as they are in rage, there is a range of non-star Americans who acquit themselves as good people.
For example, Borat doesn’t wear out the patience of a quick-copy store manager, as he goes to pick up pornographic faxes from Nazabayev, and the bad news that he’s been sentenced in absentia to be torn apart by cows. After Tutar runs away, Borat lodges with two rural men (Jeffrey Holleman and Jim Russell) both fascinated with QAnon conspiracy theories. This leads Borat to masquerade as the Obama-hating singer “Country Steve” at an anti-mask rally in Olympia.
Baron Cohen imposes himself on a farm supplies salesman to buy a new daughter cage, and patronizes a bakery worker who dully spells out “Jews Will Not Replace Us” atop a chocolate cake, per Borat’s request. There’s also a babysitter (Jeanine Jones, who warms this movie thoroughly) who keeps a straight face as she’s shown Tutar’s ball and chain, the bowl she’s supposed to eat out of the floor, and the clicker that trains her.
Again and again, what we see here is not just blind credulousness but good manners. Here is the forced composure of American retail workers in the face of grade-A weirdos. If there wasn’t such an ambient level of graciousness — however imposed by bosses — who’d bother hate-watching the videos of horrible Karens having public tantrums about foreign people’s language or accents. You understand, the sort of thing posted on what Tutar describes as “the book that never lies… Facebook.”
Watching Borat 2, one wonders what is candid camera, and what is improv. Some of the pranks are terrific — as when Borat wears a KKK uniform at the American Conservative Union CPAC, which he tops by by disguising himself as “McDonald Trump,” carrying a woman over his shoulder and trying to present her to Mikhael, I mean, Michael Pence.
An easier question to answer is the question of what works best in this film. It’s Tutar, plain and simple. Every time she’s gone, she’s badly missed. Maria Bakalova, who plays Tutar, is a real winner, an actor of great fierceness and charm. She’s a comedic figure as brave as Tracey Ullman, whom she resembles. Her and her father arguing in “Kazhak” (Bulgarian, Yiddish or whatever) or dancing some peculiar trans-Urals stomp is as important to this movie’s pulse as the rousing brass music by Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarlia.
Bakalova gives Borat 2 stakes, as she makes her own transitions. First, she’s more feral than Pippi Longstocking, living in straw, unibrowed and mustached. Then, with the advice of an Instagram influencer, she’s as gussied up as any teen idol. She gets a makeover at a Fantastic Sam’s where Borat goes incognito as an average American male. “I am John Chevrolet. I want you to turn this notsy into a hotsy.”
Tutar is prettied up enough to pass muster at a debutante ball, until the surprise gross out that empties the fancy club.
Borat 2’s peak of hilarity has the two working in tandem, getting counselling at some Southern mall’s Crisis Pregnancy Center. Borat and young Tutar may be sneaky imposters. But so is this pastor-run clinic, posing as a place where abortions are allowed.
Borat 2 finishes with a tough punchline. Comedy is dangerous. It depends on misunderstanding, outrage, swift vengeance, and narrow escapes. Borat is in the middle of the Venn diagram of comedy and crime, a man running for his life in girl’s underwear, with the police sirens after him.