By Andrea Thompson
Certain movies you watch and wonder just how much your own torture should be taken into account.
Who knew that “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” would make me nostalgic for the mockumentary that spawned it, and its release year of 2006 no less, two things I’ve never had much affection for. Sure, the original brought on the laughs more than occasionally, but its humor, which seemed so outlandish back then, seems a hell of a lot less funny now, where women and other groups seem perilously close to losing so much of the hard fought progress they’ve made, and people need little to no prodding to proudly reveal themselves as absolute garbage human beings.
To his credit, Sacha Baron Cohen, who reprises his role as the title character, doesn’t bank too much on nostalgia and genuinely tries to take our current politics into account, and how recognizable his creation is now. But this type of humor, which for the most part depends on our worst capabilities, is more often than not rather difficult to laugh at in our current state. Take the way the movie name drops Jeff Epstein, which is all but guaranteed to bring the cringe even in the best of circumstances, and hardly comes off well in the present.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” does make one very shrewd decision and give Borat a new sidekick, his 15-year-old daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), whose existence is revealed to him after he’s released from a labor camp after the first movie resulted in little more than humiliation. Tutar is deeply steeped in the cartoonishly sexist lore of the fictionalized version of the eastern European country of Kazakhstan, but doesn’t prevent her from stowing away and following her father to America, who’s been given a mission to deliver a gift to Vice President Mike Pence in order to honor Trump. When the gift becomes Tutar herself, both have few qualms given that their fictional world has rebranded Melania Trump as a kind of twisted Disney princess whose marriage is held up as the ultimate happy ending.
You know where this is going. Father and daughter bond, and she’s given a makeover and a new attitude thanks to the comparatively permissive American environment. Where the movie is at its best is where Cohen is also is, committing to his character and just allowing various deserving jackasses to reveal themselves for who they are, from the rich assholes at a debutante ball, Rudy Giuliani in full creep mode, everyone at the CPAC he crashes, to the worker at a so-called women’s health center, who shows more concern for a fetus than for the teenage girl whom he believes is carrying her father’s child.
The problems don’t just stem from the fact that not everyone deserves to be placed in whatever skit Cohen comes up with, it’s that at some points the movie isn’t too sure of what it wants to be. Cohen would’ve done far better to let his comedy speak for itself, particularly when seemingly ordinary people have no trouble whatsoever assisting him in buying a cage for his alleged daughter or icing a cake with the phrase, “The Jews will not replace us,” but show plenty of discomfort when said daughter insists on getting something for her own pleasure.
Sometimes you should just stay home rather than going big, and the more the movie tries to tap into rather than adapt to every global phenomenon, the more its humor, which is rooted in personal interaction, falls flat. When so many are still willing to go along with Cohen’s continually regressive scenarios, you don’t really need to incorporate a conspiracy theory about the coronavirus and election tampering. Just watching everyday complacency is enough.
Then again, perhaps what really offends me aren’t the customer service people who have to put up with this guy, the way Borat gleefully reacts when he learns the Holocaust was indeed real thanks to an actual survivor who is far too patient with the scenario, but how “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” includes a plot point of an underage girl immediately finding a high paying job in journalism. I don’t think this was ever going to be my brand of humor…at least not in 2020.