I’ll always remember the first time I saw a Sacha Baron Cohen movie. I was about 12 years old and was spending the night at my cousin’s house. The youngest of three, my cousin had already seen countless R-rated movies, and thus it was customary to spend our time together watching his favorite picks. That night, it was “Brüno.” Having no clue what was in store for me, I agreed, and I was shortly met with Baron Cohen’s gyrating schlong.
Besides being slightly scarred, I was intrigued by the premise of the film, in which Baron Cohen dresses as flamboyant Austrian fashion reporter Brüno, and interacts with real people to get them to reveal their hidden prejudices, namely homophobia. This style is evident in Baron Cohen’s countless other projects, such as “Da Ali G Show”, “Who is America,” as well as the original “Borat” film.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (yes it’s a mouthful) follows a similar premise of the first movie in that Baron Cohen plays fictional Kazakhi journalist Borat Sagdiyev interacting with real people. Just like with the first film, Borat encounters some of the enduring prejudices that exist in our society, such as racism and antisemitism. However, the new movie also poignantly addresses two of the biggest things on people’s minds right now: COVID-19 and the current political climate.
The sequel takes place 14 years after the original “Borat” film and follows Borat’s glorious return to what he refers to as the “US & A.” While Borat’s last visit to America was purely for journalistic purposes, his assignment this time is quite different. The Kazakhstani Premier has tasked him with gifting the Kazakh Minister of Culture, Johnny the Monkey, to someone close to “McDonald Trump” in order to redeem the nation of Kazakhstan. Hilarious, I know.
Upon arrival, Borat discovers that he is not alone in his travels: his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar Sagdayiev (played by Maria Bakalova), had surreptitiously traveled to America in Johnny’s crate. Tutar dreams of being the next “Princess Melania” and is thrilled when Borat decides to offer her to none other than Vice President Michael Pence. And, Like Baron Cohen, Bakalova is “in” on the joke.
The first half of the film focuses on Tutar preparing herself for Pence. Tutar receives advice from an Instagram influencer Macy Chanel, undergoes a makeover and is taken to a debutante ball, all to get her ready for the high society life that the second family experiences. Upon learning that Pence will be speaking at the very real Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Borat dresses up as Trump to deliver Tutar to the Vice President. The resulting juxtaposition, of Borat as Trump and Pence in the flesh, is quite hysterical.
Predictably, Pence is not amused, and Borat and Tutar are escorted out of the event by police officers. In order to avoid execution—the price for not giving an offering to an American politician close to Trump–Borat decides to give Tutar to another Trump aficionado: Rudy Giuliani. However, after a series of unsavory events, Tutar becomes disillusioned with the idea of being a dowry and leaves Borat to pursue—ironically—journalism. Borat tries to go after her, but encounters an obstacle that many of us are familiar with: COVID-19.
The virus causes a dramatic shift in the film’s plot. While the first hour or so of the movie seemed to be filmed pre-pandemic—the CPAC scene dates from Feb. 2020, where there were a mere 10 cases of the virus recorded in the United States—the second half of the movie is clearly filmed more recently. People are masked, various signage encourages hand washing, and socially distancing is enforced. Rather than stopping production, Baron Cohen integrates the pandemic into the film in a creative way.
The second half of the movie follows Borat’s search for his daughter amidst the pandemic. Borat wanders the streets to find her, but is confused by their emptiness. He encounters a random man on the street, who informs him that everyone is inside because of the virus. Borat asks to quarantine with the man, who reluctantly agrees. Borat stays with the man and his friend, both of whom are believers in the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, and he learns about the virus through them. He soon discovers Tutar is reporting on a pro-gun “March for Our Rights” rally in Olympia, Washington. Baron Cohen infiltrates the event, performing a song about the Wuhan flu that the anti-mask-wearing Trump-supporting crowd sing along to.
Throughout the film, there are also various jabs at the Trump Administration or scenes in which Baron Cohen attempts to show the foolishness of conservatives. Perhaps the best, and most often discussed scene of the film is the one in which Tutar interviews Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani seems to be unaware of Baron Cohen’s involvement in the interview, and begins to make advances on Tutar. Borat interrupts before Giuliani can go any further, but the deed has been done. And while some may disagree with the way that Baron Cohen captured Giuliani’ predatory behavior, namely Giuliani himself, it’s not like he didn’t know he was being filmed.
As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help but think I was watching some sort of parody. Yet a parody it wasn’t. The people Borat and Tutar interact with are real people, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s intentions are clear. From people claiming that Democrats are more dangerous than the virus, to those who believe that the whole thing is a liberal hoax, Baron Cohen shows the absurd and dangerous opinions of the far-right during the pandemic. Although humorous at times, it is quite alarming that so many people in our country don’t believe in science. And there is something undoubtedly eerie about being faced with this reality on screen.
Now, Borat 2 wasn’t perfect. There were some cringe-worthy scenes that made you question whether or not things are simply going too far (namely, a scene in which Borat and Tutar engage in a “moon blood” ritual). There are also some scenes that are very hard to watch as a Jew. While Baron Cohen is a Jew himself and plays on Jewish stereotypes, picture Borat with a big nose and money bags walking into a synagogue talking about the nice weather the Jews are controlling, there are times where he interacts with individuals who express blatant anti-Semitism.
It also didn’t pack the same punch as the first movie (though in terms of absurdity it was pretty on par). However, after two separate viewings (what can I say, I’m committed), I realized the point of the movie wasn’t to surpass the original. While in 2006, Baron Cohen could afford to just mess around with random people, this time around he couldn’t. The urgency of this sequel is clear in the aptly timed premiere of the movie, merely 10 days before the election, as well as the film’s parting words: “Now vote, or you will be executed.” Baron Cohen had to be more intentional with those he talked to and produce something relevant to the world we are living in. He had to use his platform to address the turmoil occurring around us in 2020. And to that aim, the film was a great success.
Hannah Docter-Loeb can be reached at email@example.com