Film & TV

Borat Can’t Recapture His Mid-2000s Magic

Sacha Baron Cohen arrives in character for a premiere at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., October 23, 2006. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)
The latest film is a decent distraction but nothing more.

Where were you when the first Borat movie dropped?

I remember where I was: In late 2006, I had just graduated college and moved to the D.C. area. The anticipation was palpable. Everyone I knew was circulating video clips of Sacha Baron Cohen pranking Americans, from everyday civilians to prominent politicians. A coworker of mine hosted a Kazakh-themed “Borat party” before we all went to the theater. And the movie delivered: It was hilarious, and it seemed to say something important about the country we lived in, though it wasn’t clear what.

When Cohen dressed up as a clueless immigrant from a backward country and tricked us into going along with the outrageously offensive things he said and did, was he revealing our inherent bigotry? Or as Christopher Hitchens put it, was he just showing that we’re “painfully polite” to outsiders?

The problem, of course, is that when your shtick relies on your targets not recognizing you, it ends when it becomes popular. Cohen’s attempt at a sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, streaming Friday on Amazon Prime, certainly has some laughs in it — but it comes nowhere near the comedic heights of its predecessor.

As the movie begins, our reporter is serving a sentence of hard labor in Kazakhstan, but he’s pulled out of retirement for a return trip to the states. After a series of twists, his goal ends up being to give his 15-year-old daughter Tutar (played by 24-year-old Maria Bakalova) as a gift to Mike Pence, to ingratiate the Kazakhs with the American government.

The movie acknowledges the difficulty it faces. When Borat arrives in America, everyone recognizes him. But Cohen still pulls some of his pranks in Borat’s usual attire, he’s recognizable in many of his disguises as well, and he never drops the famous accent. At least one mark, who works at a Halloween store, has said he knew whom he was dealing with, and that question — is this person in on the joke, or are these genuine reactions? — lingers behind much of the material. The Candid Camera routine doesn’t work if people know they’re on Candid Camera.

It’s still amusing to watch Borat shop for a cage for his daughter and ask an employee how much propane he should buy to gas various numbers of gypsies, or to see him send faxes back and forth with the leader of Kazakhstan, one of which threatens his execution, with the help of an indulgent print-store worker. One still cringes in horror when Borat and his daughter waltz into a crisis pregnancy center and imply he’s gotten her pregnant and get a pastor on video awkwardly trying to redirect the discussion from incest to abortion. But none of this is as effective as it would have been a decade and a half ago.

And some of the gags fall completely flat. At one point, Borat dresses up as Trump, slings Tutar over his shoulder, and bursts into Pence’s CPAC speech to offer her. You won’t believe what happened next: He . . . was escorted out by security. That’s the whole joke. There’s also a scene where Borat and his daughter perform a nauseating dance involving menstrual blood at a debutante ball, and the attendees are exactly as grossed out as anyone else would be.

In a late scene that’s already attracting attention, Borat and Tutar secure an interview with Rudy Giuliani (Rudy having become the target after the Pence effort failed). The daughter conducts the interview and flatters the former mayor, putting her hand on his knee and eventually getting him to have a drink with her in the bedroom of the hotel suite they’re in; Borat, having decided he doesn’t want to give his daughter to an American bigshot after all, bursts in offering himself instead — wearing pink women’s lingerie; Rudy ducks out and the two “journalists” flee. Giuliani apparently called the cops afterward, but he seemed good-natured about it when he realized it was Cohen.

None of this made me laugh, though the behavior of the thrice-divorced Giuliani toward the actress 50 years his junior, including letting her remove the microphone clipped to his pants, will raise one’s eyebrows. There will also be much discussion of what exactly he’s doing with his hands after she gets the microphone, as if we haven’t talked about that enough lately. And by the way, why is it okay to lure someone into a bedroom and secretly tape what happens there? The actress, again, is in her 20s and was pretending to be a journalist — and the character’s fictional age isn’t mentioned to him until Borat bursts in at the end.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm features some good jokes and serves as a decent enough distraction in this hellish year. But the bottom line is that Cohen can never recapture the giddy joy of that earlier film from a simpler time.

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