In 2006, when Borat first yelled “Jagshemash!” at the US and A, he used his own misogynist, racist and homophobic views to get people to reveal their underlying prejudices. 14 years on, and the fictional Kazakh journalist is back Stateside, but in a world where anti-Semitism is growing, fascists walk the streets in numbers and the president is overtly racist, can his biting social satire really have the same impact?
By and large, the answer is no. But a lack of hard-hitting critique is the least of Borat’s problems. When we first catch sight of him in this sequel, the moustachioed dope is locked up in the gulags. Kazakhstan has become a laughing stock thanks to his exploits in America and everyone hates him. A local man has stolen his house – as well as his wife – and his ashamed son even ditched the family name, changing it to Jeffrey Epstein (his hero). The only way Borat can regain his freedom, say his government jailers, is to nip back across the Atlantic and gift his only daughter to “Vice Premier” Mike Pence. He is, obviously, more than happy to do this. So the rest of the film follows Borat as he travels from state to state, teaching Sandra (mysterious newcomer Irina Novak) how to be an “attractive American lady”.
The results are predictably bonkers. During a rapid-fire 90 minutes, Borat sneaks into a Republican convention dressed as the President, defecates in front of Trump Tower, and buys a chocolate cake with “Jews will not replace us” written on it in icing. Now that he’s recognised on the street, the naive TV reporter is forced to disguise himself. So he spends most of the movie dressed as a foreign dignitary, cheap businessman or trailer-trash hick. Eventually, his daughter learns to question the offensive things her father has told her – like the story about a girl whose vagina swallowed her whole when she masturbated – and the pair embark on a journey of realisation. You certainly wouldn’t have guessed it from the film’s pot-stirring promo, but this is actually the tale of how Borat got woke.
It’s a hand-brake turn in this character’s roadmap, for sure. When the first film came out, Baron Cohen’s shock-comedy caused outrage. Yet there was never any serious talk of reprisals. Society has moved on since then, and it’s obvious the satirist isn’t comfortable going as far over the line. Instead, he noticeably dials back the homophobia, also treading carefully with jokes at the expense of Black characters. He’s confident enough to mock celebrities though – “Kenneth West” receives short shrift – and Baron Cohen can’t resist making his Jewish heritage the butt of most gags. There are still scenes of stunning impropriety, but they are fewer in number. It’s strange to say, given Twitter’s perpetual state of indignation, but a lot of what Borat says in this movie won’t seem scandalous.
That might be the whole point – look how readily westerners accept Borat’s prejudices as their own – but in 2020, we’ve seen it all before. As with Baron Cohen’s recent political series Who Is America?, the people Borat ‘unmasks’ during the film (QAnon conspiracy theorists, pro-life doctors, sleazeball conservatives) are happy to be painted as bigots. Trump has empowered the most backwards in society to be indifferent to public reckoning. When the punchline of your joke is so obvious, it grows old very quickly.
That said, there’s plenty here for Gen Zers to get upset about. In 2006, entire school years snuck into cinemas just to catch a glimpse of that bushy tache. The blinkered bozo was most popular, arguably, among the young. Fast-forward to now and it’s very hard to imagine that happening with this generation, many of whom value morals above all else. Borat’s return, then, is for the fans. Those who still wail “Is nice!” when clinking pint glasses in the pub. The kind of person who might wear a mankini to a music festival. That guy in school who shouted “Wa wa wee wa!” every time he found a penny on the playground. There’s nothing wrong with that, but many will have been expecting more.
- Director: Jason Woliner
- Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Irina Novak, Luenell
- Release date: October 23 (Amazon Prime Video)