Jagshemash Plus 1
Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat is now so well known that Americans recognize him on the street so it is increasingly difficult for him to pull stunts. His kind of semi-documentary humor is not an easy premise to sustain but as Baron Cohen demonstrates, there will always be people who deserve to be mocked. This time, Cohen has to create other characters with elaborate costumes (which look too cumbersome, and therefore aren’t as funny) and introduces Borat’s 15 year-old daughter Tutar (the extraordinary Maria Bakalova) in order to continue lampooning American idiots. Tutar allows Baron Cohen to delve into the theme of misogyny, which is organically intertwined into the theme of Republicans and Trumpers. He has a field day.
Baron Cohen is a comedic polyglot. He is good at satire, slapstick, physical comedy, verbal wit, sight gags, improv. I laugh hardest at the silliest stuff, the many comedic nuggets inside and in between the big set pieces, like Borat’s retrograde obliviousness and his hilarious malapropisms. As long as he is punching up, I have no problem with him setting up powerful assholes for ridicule (see: Giuliani, Rudolph). But I feel uncomfortable when he punches down, even when the people are so benighted that they kind of deserve it. They are easy marks.
To his credit, even though he sets them up and he can make them look as bad as possible, he shows the not so terrible side of the people he makes fun of. Apparently, small business owners in the American “heartland” are willing to tolerate all kinds of racist and sexist outrageousness from their clients in order to make a buck, whether it’s ordering an antisemitic chocolate cake, or a giant cage for your daughter. “Whatever floats your boat” and “the customer is always right” seem to be enshrined in their Constitution.
Some of the bits are quite inspired, including a recurring trip to a humble copy center with a fax machine. The bit works on many levels, from the unquestioning, unfailingly polite service of the fax guy, who patiently handwrites the insane messages Borat needs to convey to Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry, and their more insane messages in return — in official letterhead, mind you — to why are these people using fax machines in this day and age? Another bit at a plastic surgeon’s office goes into full absurdity, not only because the doctor and his assistant are creeps, but also because of the way Borat pays for the service, which is hysterical. In order to finish paying for the surgery, somehow Borat gets a job at a barbershop where he sharpens a rusty scythe and cuts the hair of a surprisingly unfazed customer with a pair of pruning shears, but with the utmost finesse. That’s the stuff that kills me.
I actually found myself laughing more a day after watching the movie. It takes time for all the layers of comedy to sink in. And in hindsight, I don’t feel as much anxiety when Cohen puts people on the spot. There is a double-edged tension to the bits where he sets up people. You can see their confusion and you feel that at any moment things could go awry. He and Bakalova have balls and ovaries of steel.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is about misogyny. Borat’s relationship with Tutar goes through a heartfelt arc which provides the narrative structure of the movie and the motivation for all the set pieces. They have a genuine father-daughter chemistry. It has to be daunting to act alongside a comedic genius like Baron Cohen yet Bakalova nails it. Tutar is as phenomenal a character as Borat and Bakalova makes it so. She is incredible.
Borat keeps Tutar in a cage, according to the custom of his village. Tutar does not object. Her most cherished dream is to live in a golden cage like Melania (“the happiest wife in the world!”). At some point Borat is haggling with the guy who is selling him the cage for Tutar and he mentions the immigrant children that the Trump administration has itself kept in cages. The guy doesn’t bat an eye. They even high five about it. It’s a twisted yet effective comment on the normalization of atrocities in this country. Baron Cohen is out to get blood from Republicans, Facebook, conspiracy theories, antisemitism (a topic he milks with gusto), conservatives, Trump, Pence, and in a hilarious turn at the end, the coronavirus itself.
In this way, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm unfolds like the layers of an onion (onions make an appearance as a coveted object of desire for young Kazakh girls). Tutar happens to learn that women in America have rights. They can drive. They can own their own businesses. They can touch their “vagines”. Tutar starts getting ideas. This takes her into a journey of self-improvement and self-realization, to which she ropes in her father, although he has motives to use her to “make bribe to benefit recently diminished nation of Kazakhstan”, which is where the sordid Giuliani comes in.
But first they consult with a self-professed sugar baby and a debutante coach. Tutar gets a makeover. I love that Borat treats Tutar like a barn animal but he’s also afraid of her, because she is a feral child with a short fuse. This story arc is endearing and makes the movie more watchable, although a father-daughter ritual dance at a debutante ball in Macon, Georgia really made me cringe. Even though the movie is very funny in some parts and the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts, it is not a comedic masterpiece like the first Borat. But that may be an impossible feat to repeat. Once the thrill of his bizarre encounters with real people is rehashed, it’s actually easier to wonder about how they are contrived. Still, if there is an award for producing, it should go to his team of producers. To pull off such stunts has to be an extraordinarily well-oiled operation.
Borat has come back at a perfect time. The movie is fresh with recent events like footage of Mike Pence boasting we only have 15 cases of Covid-19 (HA!). Like the fantastic music by Baron Cohen’s brother Erran, Borat is zany, cheerful, and friendly. He is an endlessly curious antisemite, racist, misogynist, and retrograde. He is not malicious. He means well! This is why the character is such a stroke of genius. In Borat’s culture these benighted ideas are normal, and as Cohen goes to absurd lengths to show, in our culture many people are doing everything they can to normalize them too. Baron Cohen basically puts a mirror in front of the worst side of America, which deserves all the scorn he’s got.