Producers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Monica Levinson and Anthony Hines Director: Jason Woliner Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Swimer, Peter Baynham, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Mazer, Jena Friedman and Lee Kern Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova and Dani Popescu Distributor: Amazon Studios
It’s been fourteen years since Sacha Baron Cohen introduced us to Borat Sagdiyev, the goofily earnest would-be journalist from Kazakhstan who came to the United States to film a documentary portraying America for his countrymen—letting his personal desires get in the way but revealing all sorts of imperfections in American society over the course of his journey. “Borat,” which bore the cumbersome subtitle “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” was lauded as groundbreaking by many, though some of us thought its scattershot improvisational mode and condescending attitude stumbled as often as they took admittedly hysterical flight.
This long-awaited sequel—with an even more tongue-twisting title, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”—can’t match the sense of surprise the original carried, but in some respects it’s better than its predecessor. It has a set-up that invites satirical pot-shots at the current socio-political circumstances in the U.S.—those directed against the Trump regime are predictable and pretty funny, and others that take aim on the insanity of QAnon conspiracy theories cut even deeper. Some gags in the latter stages, including an audacious “reveal” at the close, even involve the COVID-19 pandemic, which might prompt some to say “too soon.” But a few of us are old enough to remember that “Dr. Strangelove” was criticized by some in 1964 for sending up a reality that, they said, was too important to be treated satirically.
There’s also a surprisingly sweet side to “Moviefilm,” a narrative line about Borat connecting with Tutar (Maria Bakalova), the daughter he never knew he had, as they travel about the U.S. together and learn how women can be empowered, a concept totally foreign to the (supposed) Kazakh mentality. The movie is—crazily enough—essentially a feminist fable into which assaults on oddities in contemporary American psyche are plunked. And although there’s lots of raunchiness and messiness in the result, the overall through-line is a positive one: Borat actually learns some lessons about his own life and beliefs.
The starting-point of the movie is that for the worldwide ridicule his first movie had brought upon Kazakhstan, Borat has been sentenced to heavy labor. But he’s freed from the rock pits by Premier Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) to return to America with an important mission. The Premier is incensed over the failure of the Trump administration to include him among the authoritarian leaders the President is so fond of, and wants a gift delivered to him to induce him to embrace Nazarbayev. The chosen “bribe” is the Kazakh cultural minister, a monkey. That doesn’t work out as planned, of course.
An important aspect of why it doesn’t (apart from its total inanity) is that before departing, Borat goes back to his home village, where he’s treated as a pariah; one of his sons has even changed his name, though his choice is hardly likely to give him the respect he craves. Borat also finds that he has a daughter, whose dreams of becoming a princess are nurtured by a Disney-like animated movie about a real-life girl from the Balkans and begs to go along. Borat refuses, but Tutar stows away on the labyrinthine journey the government has arranged for its emissary, and so Borat is stuck with her in America.
To reveal too much about their adventures would be unfair. Suffice it to say that they include embarrassing encounters with some important Republican politicians as well as grass-roots supporters of the party. But they also involve episodes with some extraordinary “ordinary” folks—owners of dress shops and salons, clerks at electronic, shipping and hardware stores and bakeries, worshippers at a synagogue, adherents of conspiracy theories, celebrants at a debutante ball, social media influencers, cosmetic surgeons, and a feisty babysitter. Some of the segments are staged or semi-staged, others totally improvised. The cinematography by Luke Geissbuhler and editing by James Thomas, Craig Alpert and Mike Giambra might not always blend everything together seamlessly, but the occasional sloppiness is part of the fun, and overall their work, as well as David Saenz De Maturana’s production design, is enjoyably cheesy. The score by Sacha’s brother Erran Baron Cohen is hardly great music, but suits the rather mangy visuals.
Your reaction to “Moviefilm” will, of course, depend to a great deal on your political persuasion and willingness to go along with outrageously tasteless bits and swallow some outright vulgarity. But it will also depend on your attitude toward Sacha Baron Cohen, whom some consider a genius and others an annoyance. Whatever your attitude about him, one has to admit that he’s created a gleefully loopy but likable character in Borat, and Bakalova matches him as a girl who changes radically during her jaunt across America and changes her father in the process. The result is a worthy successor to the first “Borat,” and in some respects an improvement on it.