Though decades-later movie sequels have become frequent and sometimes surprisingly great, comedy follow-ups remain tough nuts to re-crack. This is especially true when, say, 14 years have elapsed between a phenomenon and the dying gasps of “my wife!” snuffed out by quote-loving office denizens forced to work at home. Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan, the comic mockumentary built around Sacha Baron Cohen’s cheerfully anti-Semitic roving reporter from Kazakhstan, was released during a whole separate international nightmare. Now, hawkish War On Terror jingoism has been eclipsed by emboldened white nationalism and a global pandemic with no end in sight. If Baron Cohen’s satirical aims could sometimes come across both broad and a bit slippery in 2006, what hope does Borat have in 2020, wandering around the streets of the United States yet again?
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery Of Prodigious Bribe To American Regime For Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan, shot in secret earlier this year, tries its best to make some accommodations for this shifted status quo while simultaneously reviving plenty of familiar bits. In its Kazakhstan-set prologue, Subsequent Moviefilm uses the popularity of its predecessor to explain what Borat has been up to all these years: He’s been sentenced to a life of hard labor after the success of his first film proved humiliating for his home country. He gets a shot at redemption with the election of Donald Trump: The installation of a strongman in the highest office of the United States provides an opportunity for Kazakhstan to assert its place on the world stage through, of course, a bizarre form of bribery.
So Borat sets off for America, again, under threat of execution, again, to deliver said bribe. Offering more specifics on what this bribe entails would spoil some of the movie’s biggest early laughs; suffice to say that he winds up with an unexpected new sidekick in the form of his adolescent daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova). Bakalova’s presence, replacing Ken Davitian’s producer character from the earlier film, turns out to be crucial. After years of imitations and Halloween costumes—Borat himself looks over one such knockoff himself, naturally—Baron Cohen can no longer count on anonymity as he roams around in search of semi-satirical pranks. This is incorporated into the story, with Borat/Baron Cohen donning a series of disguises to avoid fans and autograph-seekers. But having an unknown performer on hand helps with the sleight-of-hand, too.
In addition to a few solo showcase sequences and several inspired double-act scenes with her onscreen dad, Bakalova gets something not typically afforded a Baron Cohen-comedy character not played by Baron Cohen: something resembling an arc. Tutar’s initial ambitions are informed by her neglectful barn-bound upbringing and infatuation with a Disney-style cartoon portraying the charmed life of Melania Trump. Faced with fatherly attention for the first time, she starts to question her willingness to accept a roomy cage as her destiny. The sequel lacks an audience-destroying showstopper like the original film’s protracted nude wrestling match, but Bakalova rivals Baron Cohen in her well-concealed yet palpable joy of performance lurking under the firmness of her commitment.
Putting these characters in a movie, rather than a TV sketch, involves figuring out how to balance ramshackle, improvisational, “real world” scenarios with scripted connective tissue. Those rhythms must be hard to shake; Baron Cohen’s The Dictator had no real-world set pieces, and even at its funniest still felt like it was being pasted together haphazardly from a series of sketch ideas. While a straight-to-streaming Subsequent Moviefilm seems like the perfect opportunity to relax narrative standards even further, this may actually be the most coherent of Baron Cohen’s star vehicles. The gags that involve, essentially, inventive slander against the nation of Kazahkstan are sprinkled throughout the movie rather than confined to the opening minutes, and the culturally backward father-daughter relationship between Baron Cohen and Bakalova feels like it involves more scripted scenes than before (though, as ever, it’s hard to say for sure).
When Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner (a Nathan For You veteran, replacing Baron Cohen’s usual collaborator Larry Charles) do pull real people into their funhouse, they’re sometimes downright welcoming, as if casting actors from life, rather than casting about for rubes. In multiple scenes, the quiet patience of clerks helping Borat conduct text-messaging-style fax correspondence or learn to use a smartphone becomes a method for joke delivery, not an indictment of their willingness to play along. Tutar’s awakening, such as it is, is encouraged by a woman of color willing to speak up against the horrible things she sees and hears from Borat. This represents a conspicuous shift from the strategy Baron Cohen’s films have typically relied on, where Americans need only the mildest prodding to show their polite-faced worst.
That approach hasn’t been banished entirely. Far from it. Baron Cohen spends time at an anti-mask rally, defiles a debutante ball, and infiltrates the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, though that last one doesn’t require a “gotcha” interview so much as keeping the camera on while someone brags to the audience about his administration’s sterling response in the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days. (A sizable chunk of the movie was shot during the pandemic, which becomes a bigger plot point as the movie proceeds.) A climactic encounter with another prominent Republican pushes further while still going more or less where the audience might expect, toward an incident that would constitute a front-page embarrassment five or 10 years ago. Now, it’s just one more low, and the prodding seems less necessary than ever. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is frequently funny and occasionally pointed, more than enough to recommend it as a comedy. It’s also another instance where doing things as they’ve always been done no longer feels like quite enough. The prejudices Baron Cohen exposes have become too fond of exposing themselves.