There is both more and less to this film than you’d expect. The reason Sacha Baron Cohen has returned with a Borat sequel fourteen years after the last movie, is clearly to expose the problems with the current political situation in America just as the country is about to go to the polls. Certainly, with its method of pranking people into making fools of themselves, the film does highlight the idiocy of Trump supporters in several places but this isn’t where the film truly excels.
I do have to mention the two guys who dismiss the ridiculous cultural conventions of Baron Cohen’s fictionalised version of Kazakhstan without realising their own views on both COVID-19 and Hilary Clinton are equally stupid, and then of course there is Rudy Giuliani, whose part of the film has had some media coverage over the last few days. (I’ll accept Giuliani’s claim that he was just tucking his shirt into the front of his trousers but he still comes across as a creep and an idiot.) Taken as a whole the film is really scattershot though and while it has a surprisingly touching through line, it does lack focus.
Interestingly, the most consistent aspect of the film is in how it deals with the rights and identity of women, so while it is not particularly successful in puncturing the over inflated blowhard in the White House, it is a strongly feminist film. Curiously this is not something that the reviews seem to have really picked up on but for me it is where the movie finds most success.
Since Sacha Baron Cohen and Borat are now both known in America the film has to introduce new characters to catch people out. In many cases this is Baron Cohen himself, playing Borat playing someone else, which is an unfortunate narrative necessity. Alongside this though there is a new character in the shape or Borat’s daughter Tutar, played by a quite brilliant Maria Bakalova. The plot of the movie has Borat trying to gift his daughter to Mike Pence and to prepare for this he has to make her more presentable. The early part of the film shows her as the victim of a ‘comically’ extreme patriarchy but when he starts schooling her in the American way he takes her first to a social media influencer who tells her that women should not be too smart else they won’t be accepted and then to a debutante coach who helps her become more conventionally attractive. Of course we are expected to brush off the idea of her being considered her father’s property and kept in a cage as ridiculous (although this doesn’t stop one store owner happily selling said cage for this stated purpose) but when we see her being dumbed down and prettified it exposes these very real practices as almost equally unenlightened. When he then presents her, alongside a lot of other fathers and daughters at a debutante ball you see these other young women railing against their Dads as they go along with the charade. There have been other films to show historical or cultural sexism but this exposes a very current Western version of this that is otherwise easy to brush off or ignore.
Baron Cohen’s method of showing ignorance and bigotry is, like Sarah Silverman before him, to play those traits himself to highlight them in others. There are times in the film where this works, but also occasions where the members of the public involved shout down and stand up to this. There is one misjudged moment where Baron Cohen has publicly stated that the women he meets in a synagogue were in on the joke (because if they weren’t it would be too too cruel) and their sweetness has kept the clip in the film. There is another similar moment with a babysitter called Jeanise Jones though that may well have been set up too, possibly even scripted, but in the context of the film still shows the woman as a real hero.
By the end Tutar has become a successful and empowered professional having followed a ‘story’ that has all the moralising subtly and narrative sophistication of Sesame Street yet is still surprisingly touching. This no doubt is because of the real aspects of her journey, in the Christian fertility centre, the church women’s group, the plastic surgery clinic and the famed ex New York mayor’s private rooms – all places where women have genuinely been, that give her made up journey a terrifying truth.
It’ll be the showier stunts that make it into the trailer and most of the write ups; Baron Cohen sneaking into a Republican conference in a Klan outfit, him shouting at a coronavirus dismissing Pence while dressed up as Trump, getting a group of voters at a rally to chant about poisoning Dr. Fauci with the ‘Wuhan flu’ or compromising Rudy Giuliani (in any other time, under any other administration this probably would have been career ending) but in the end these are all less significant than its challenges to gender politics.