God doesn’t make accidents.
I’ll be the first to say I loved Borat back in 2006. I loved the idea of Sacha Baron Cohen bringing this wild character to America under the radar. I loved reveling in the absurdity of his antics with a crowded theater of like-minded audience members ready to laugh as he put a mirror up to us. And then time moved on. Others riffed on the concept (including himself with the much less effective Brüno) and the moment for such broad comedic strokes evolved into self-parody. From there Cohen leveraged his fame into an acting career that may just earn him a second Oscar nomination before dipping back into the realm of outlandish “caricatures” with the brilliant “Who Is America?” succeeding in providing the shtick a much-needed maturity.
So why follow that huge step forward with an even bigger step back by removing Borat Sagdiyev’s iconic suit and mustache from storage? Why take what worked so well on his 2018 TV show and undercut it with lowest common denominator goofs thanks to the decision to shoehorn in this character that wore out its welcome almost two decades prior? It boggles my mind—especially since he rightfully understands how worthless Borat’s popularity has made his ability to do what needs to be done without resorting to yet another layer of costuming that bears a striking resemblance to the ones he wore on “America”. The only way to hope it could work is to take a backseat and let someone else step into his shoes instead.
Meet Tutar Sagdiyev (Maria Bakalova), star of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm … or, better yet, the front. That’s what Borat’s maligned daughter actually is. She’s the distraction allowing the film to be possible rather than the key ingredient ensuring its success. Why? Because Cohen still takes center-stage. And since the bits where he engages with the public must be brief to elude identification (which does allow him to swing for the fences and let a police escort end the joke before an eagle-eyed rube can ruin the charade), he must manufacture screen-time with a “heartwarming” tale of a misogynist father learning to love his brainwashed-by-the-patriarchy daughter. While the artifice works when in service of tricking people into putting feet in mouths, however, it doesn’t when it’s all we have.
I honestly couldn’t care about their relationship. It proves little more than arduously lengthy exposition for “gotcha” moments that fall flat at every turn in large part because those getting duped aren’t showing their asses as much as their disdain for what they’re seeing and hearing. For every women’s clinic pastor condoning incest as God’s plan are three or four women wrinkling their noses at Bakalova’s brazen performance. She’s a twenty-something woman playing a fifteen-year old girl from a hyperbolic background that forces her to actually act like she’s twelve. So the conservative women she approaches open their arms only to regret it. They ultimately reveal themselves to be waspy—the thing we already know they are. Rather than exposing anything, Bakalova and Cohen merely confirm.
Look at Borat’s stint with two QAnon conspiracy theorists during our current pandemic (the logistics of Cohen staying in character without a mask is itself a tough reality to witness and still cultivate an attitude conducive to humor). Does he make them look like fools? Sure. But they are fools. They’re the people we’ve been laughing at for years because they believe Hilary Clinton drinks from the adrenal glands of children. Does Cohen getting them to call his oppressive book on “how to be a good woman” a conspiracy earn a chuckle? Sure. But that’s it. He got two guys who will believe anything a Democrat-hating American says to believe what their new Democrat-hating friend says. Where’s the genius in that? I certainly can’t see it.
And maybe that’s all there is to this thing. Maybe I only enjoyed Borat back in 2006 because I wasn’t politically motivated or up on current affairs enough to see through the ruse. Maybe I enjoyed it because the internet hadn’t yet turned everything into a meme and thus put the sad truth on social media for the world to see every single day that you don’t have to affect a foreign accent to get a racist to say racist things on-camera. Now that the floodgates have been open for years, nothing Cohen does here feels fresh. I can appreciate the logistics of interrupting Mike Pence‘s speech at CPAC and getting in a room with Rudy Giuliani, but not the hollow, performative result. What did he actually achieve?
“The Daily Show’s” Jordan Klepper improved Cohen’s format by showing he could get the same responses while being himself because idiots have no shame. He improved the bit so much that Borat now comes off as a cheap knock-off who’s lost the plot. When the best part of a film meant to show southern conservatives as backwards and archaic no matter their socio-economic status is a woman (Jeanise Jones) who sees through the bullshit and calls the Sagdiyevs out, you should cut your losses because she’s proving your utter irrelevance. Her desire to save Tutar from her predicament exposes Cohen and Bakalova as charlatans simply providing bigots a platform. They aren’t trapping supposedly “good” people. Good people like Jones stand firm. They’re just giving bad people a microphone.
And that too is unnecessary since many of these same people have said worse voluntarily to their own web-cams. They get their phones out and live-stream to Facebook about their wild theories and we share it for a laugh without realizing we’re amplifying their message and driving metrics and algorithms to share it with those who fly past the joke to ultimately end up believing it as truth instead. My relatives put people saying crazier things than Cohen has gotten his targets to say on their feeds with earnest. The world has been turned upside-down these past four years to the point where Trump’s GOP faction’s emboldened pride in hate speech has rendered Borat obsolete. I can’t fathom how anyone paying attention can find value in it today.
courtesy of Amazon Studios