Fourteen years after the original “Borat,” there’s still no one who does this brand of comedy as well as Sacha Baron Cohen and his team. A mixture of candid-camera moments, improv acting, editing trickery – and a lot more scripted writing than they want you to know — “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (Amazon Prime) had me simultaneously laughing out loud and wondering what techniques they used to achieve these scenes.
Cohen is joined by three other writers on the story and seven on the screenplay, but I’m suspicious that most of the actors in this sequel directed by sitcom-honed Jason Woliner are not credited. (The third-billed actor is Tom Hanks, whose brief cameo hilariously ties everything together.)
The story of Kazakhstani journalist Borat Sagdiyev (Cohen) aiming to sell off his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova) to a to-be-determined powerful American moves far too smoothly, the thematic points about COVID-19 and politics are far too pointed, and scenes are far too crisply acted (if in improv style) for “Borat 2” to be explained merely as a product of ingenious editing.
It’s closer to “Parks and Recreation’s” pseudo-docu style than a true collection of candid moments, although there’s no doubt many of the extras are reacting to what they think are truly bizarre happenings.
So this is a scripted film, but it’s a darn good one. “Borat 2’s” comedic batting average is high, but it’s also a rather moving tale – albeit in the way of broad comedies, with Erran Baron Cohen’s score nudging us along – of two backward people overcoming their ingrained teachings.
The Sagdiyevs are from a “Kazakhstan” that’s absurdly more backward than the real one, which is funny up until you realize that many of the candid-camera victims take this foreign duo at face value. But the real Kazakhstan government never took to the joke of that 2006 film … which sort of makes it funnier, especially now that we have this out-of-nowhere sequel.
At any rate, there’s an undeniable sweetness to this misogynist father finding himself loving his daughter despite his ingrained beliefs that only males have value. Meanwhile, Tutar discovers her own worth, particularly from a flabbergasted but big-hearted middle-aged babysitter with whom Borat stashes Tutar. The woman, who is either an excellent improv actress or a wonderful (if gullible) real person, teaches Tutar that her vagina does not have teeth and will not eat her hand.
We already know Cohen can act, but this is the breakthrough role for Bulgarian actress Bakalova, who is totally on the same wavelength as her co-star. There may be trickery with extra takes I’m not privy to (if so, they are well hidden and interspersed with the real people’s reactions), but to be able to play out an absurd role … without real people realizing it … and to do it in one take … in your first major role … is a stunning achievement.
Among those real people is Rudy Giuliani, who – after 90 percent of the film being surprisingly easy to watch – features in the most cringeworthy sequence. It’s basically an episode of “To Catch a Predator,” as the former New York mayor believes he is in a genuine recorded TV news interview with reporter Tutar. I think entrapment is among the most disgusting things the government can legally do, because of both its moral wrongness and fiscal wastefulness. And it’s not much more palatable when Cohen and his team do it, even if the target is someone I’m not a fan of.
More generally, this sequence is the height of awkwardness for both what’s happening and for an uncomfortably Michael Moore-ish overtone of gotcha documentary filmmaking (Giuliani and the film have been going at it since the release). But it does provide “Borat 2” with a grand finale, so I understand why it’s in there.
Still, Giuliani is only the most specific target of a film that makes fun of America much more than it makes fun of Kazakhstan – even though it’s filled with a lot of Americans who don’t realize they’re being lampooned. “Borat 2” specifically targets a swath of the country that particularly lives up to stereotypes: religion-based family planning, speeches about mask mandates being the last-straw infringement, and more than one Republican Party gathering.
Of the two major parties, the film undeniably skewers the GOP more, and I suppose that will offend some viewers, although frankly it might’ve been easiest to get good footage in areas where a lot of people think COVID is a hoax.
That said, America’s embarrassing aspects are rather timeless and apolitical. The journey of Borat and Tutar takes them to debutante balls and a plastic surgery consultation. And smaller nutso moments keep the momentum going, like when Borat randomly lets out a quick fart, with no one commenting on it. So many people in “Borat 2” are firm – and oh so mistaken — believers in propriety overcoming culture-clash social awkwardness. They’ll sell Borat a woman-cage or let him pay for his teen’s breast implants with a bag of $1 bills before they’ll question if they’re being put on.
I can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t (I only know some of it is definitely real and some of it definitely isn’t), and that makes me want to do some internet research into how this comedy was crafted. Then again, maybe I’m overthinking it. As “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” pokes fun at this year from hell, it gives us what we most need for our mental health: laughter, and lots of it.