Annie Yan

Could they make “Borat” today? Well, they gone and done it, and I’m still not sure.

Borat isn’t what he used to be. He’s not as shocking, not quite as funny and certainly not as adorable. We loved the 2006 Borat because his more egregious impulses were always tempered with a solid dose of childish clownery. Sure, he might have kept his neurodivergent brother Bilo locked in a cage, but he also carried a briefcase full of chickens and just wanted to kiss everyone on the cheek. In “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm,” the sequel released two weeks ago, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat is mainly just bigoted.

For those with fond memories of eighth graders incessantly doing their best “my wife,” it will be immediately apparent that Cohen can’t even do his own Borat voice anymore. He’s just going through the motions, only laboring to resurrect his old Kazakh accent for a “great success!” every now and then, like some washed-up fossil of a rock star who gets wheeled out a few times a year to growl some hits. Seemingly exasperated after what must be years of randos badgering him to say “very nice!” in public, Borat’s familiar Russian-tinged elocution is eschewed for a sound derivative of Cohen’s recent Israeli character constructions.

There’s more missing than just the voice — also gone is the affable, obese, hairy Azamat, replaced by new sidekick Tutar (Maria Bakalova, in her English-language debut), Borat’s daughter. Just as in the original “Borat,” the two actors navigate a mix of staged and improvised interactions duping unwitting bystanders, but more of this film is scripted exchanges between the two. The relationship between Borat and Tutar gives the film a bit of a storyline, as Borat must bestow her to a top American official to win back respect in Kazakhstan. Following the family comedy playbook, the father-daughter pair bond over the course of their journey, and Borat learns some important lessons about being a better person. Feel-good stuff all around!

How did a bold, line-crossing comedy spawn such a feel-good sequel? As many critics have pointed out, Borat succumbed to wokeness. This isn’t to say Borat has stooped down to the “orange man bad” level that the film’s angriest critics allege. Rather, Borat’s woke awakening comes in the form of nonstop challenges to his prejudices, the list of which has considerably shortened since the last film (sometime in the past 14 years, gypsy humor left the realm of acceptability). The former bumbling everything bagel of bigotry now limits himself to two toppings: sexism and anti-Semitism, both of which get challenged in a series of what are best described as lectures from non-actors convinced he’s real.

Rather than the even-handedness with which Cohen’s previous work (from the “Ali G Show” to “Who is America”) mocked everything, “Subsequent Moviefilm” solidly takes aim at Trump and his supporters, yet also shows them sympathetically. The both-sides moment of “Subsequent Moviefilm” arrives when a pair of COVID truthers tell Borat how antiquated and offensive his views on women are. Rather than use the strangers as the butt of a joke, the film tacks them on to the ever-growing list of opportunities to tell Borat (and the audience) that his ignorant bigotry is dangerous. I will say, in one of several throwbacks to the Borat of yore, a cage salesman has no qualms with selling Borat an enclosure for his woman. Moments like these, once Borat’s comedic bread and butter, are few and far between.

The new staple is politics, a more ambitious if less successful pivot. As the story follows Borat’s quest to marry off his daughter into the Trumpverse, the film riskily pinned its storyline entirely on the reactions of well-known political figures. What became of this strategy was a climactic scene that hinged on the audience’s interpretation of Rudy Giuliani laying on a bed with hand deep in pants. While the still image of America’s Mayor possibly fondling himself proved to be perfect marketing, its position as the culmination of the film’s bravado does nothing but disappoint.

Ultimately, the film becomes more about its making than its content. Borat dressing up as Trump, slinging a woman over his shoulder and shouting distantly at the vice president is the comedy equivalent of Leonardo DiCaprio chowing on rancid bear meat to win an Oscar. There is scant reaction from Pence and the crowd, leaving the audience only impressed by the feat of having gotten into the same room as Pence while dressed as Trump. This is not to say that Cohen’s ability to gain access to powerful people and places isn’t impressive — it certainly is. He just didn’t do much with it. Two years removed from having Dick Cheney sign a “waterboarding kit” and OJ Simpson basically admit guilt, it’s a little disappointing the best they landed was an interview with Rudy Giuliani, and all they could muster out of it was a hand in the pants.

What is left is ultimately an entertaining cash-grab. Borat has changed so much that the film often feels more like Cohen was paid to do the character for an ad campaign, or perhaps more accurately, a Saturday Night Live appearance. To the film’s detriment, it ultimately becomes inseparable from its marketing campaign. With Cohen and Bakalova (in character) getting Jimmy Kimmel to take his pants off to promote the film, it seems like the film is just a promotion for something. For Amazon Prime? It certainly boosted the streaming service. For the previous Borat movie? Watching the sequel definitely reminded me of its predecessor’s greatness.

Perhaps it’s just a 90-minute political ad. It was rumored that the film was rushed to get ample viewing before the election, though it is unclear exactly why anyone expected a comedy sequel with a porn monkey to sway undecided voters from Trump.

So topical that it will be unwatchable within months, “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” is rather funny and entertaining. By these metrics, it would seem the film was successful. But at its professed goal of making some kind of grand political statement, “Subsequent Moviefilm” falls flat. Wawaweewa.

Harry Rubin | harry.rubin@yale.edu