Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat in 2007

Borat bores us

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Borat film is a flop

Artillery Row

Two weeks before Amazon Prime’s streaming service released the sequel to the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 Borat film, or, to give the sequel its parodic full title, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, he whined in his real voice to the few remaining adults who still read Time magazine that Facebook promotes information that the actor believes to be false, and that it refuses to adopt recommendations for “systemic reforms” (i.e. censorship) ominously demanded by a public interest group to which he belongs. His petulant article was illustrated by a photo of a young man in a mask marked “Covid-19 is a hoax.”

A few days later, in a moment that strikingly resembled a Borat prank, Baron Cohen tweeted outrage upon learning that his plea for heightened Facebook censorship had itself been censored by Facebook, apparently for spreading false information. For one postmodern moment, none other than the creator of Borat languished as the publicly humiliated victim of his own “gotcha” form of humour. In ironic contrast to Kazakh public officials who have admitted that the first Borat film was funny and generated welcome curiosity about their country, Baron Cohen performed an entertaining parody of his actual self. One can almost imagine a bemused Borat mispronouncing the phrase “systemic reforms” in his mildly racist post-Soviet accent.

On the whole, it felt like a do-over but with the burden of a father-daughter drama that slows down the action without adding many laughs

Baron Cohen may have spent the fourteen years between Borats indulging in the common Hollywood delusion that people will take even a dancing clown seriously if he made one funny film and several mediocre ones. That might pass muster in Borat’s fictional Kazakhstan, which, we now learn, has a monkey who is both its Minister of Culture and leading porn star. Baron Cohen’s real-life persona, however, appears to have the levity of a Central Asian potassium factory and less self-awareness than his on-screen character showed when presenting gracious Southern dinner hosts with a plastic bag of his own excrement.

To be fair, sequels rarely do as well as any foundational film, and the first Borat’s sheer bizarreness is no longer new or fresh. Baron Cohen can only be painfully aware of this after unsuccessful attempts to expand his impressions-and-mockery franchise in Brüno (2009) and The Dictator (2012), both of which were forgettable. He probably had no choice but to spend much of the Borat sequel in various disguises-over-his-disguise since the character’s iconic appearance would have been too easily recognized. Dependent on fooling unsuspecting or, as often seems to be the case, misled Americans, the reprise suffered from Borat’s lack of a self-contained universe akin to that of the Marx Brothers, the Seinfeld cast, or Larry David, where a continuity of character can roll forward without any concern about exhausting situational novelty.

Probably for that reason, the Borat sequel adheres formulaically to the first film. Once again, Borat is sent on a quest to faraway America to reach an inaccessible celebrity, this time tasked with gifting Kazakhstan’s simian culture minister to Vice President Mike Pence. Borat’s teenage daughter Tutar complicates things with her dream of being given away in an arranged marriage to a rich old man. She stows away in the monkey’s shipping crate, eats him en route, and thereby forces her father to change his mission to give her to Mike Pence instead. Along the way, Borat’s awkwardness and naïveté elicit what are supposed to be shocking admissions of prejudice and lunacy from mainly rural and Southern Americans. As in the first film, he embarrasses people in one-on-one meetings, behaves provocatively in confined public spaces, scandalises an upper-class social affair, takes refuge with open-hearted but deeply flawed hosts who volunteer unsavory views, confronts pleasant elderly Jews with a caricatured mixture of fear and loathing, leads an offensive public sing-a-long, and infiltrates a mass event attended by people of whom Baron Cohen obviously disapproves. On the whole, it felt like a do-over but with the burden of a father-daughter drama that slows down the action without adding many laughs.

The sequel has some funny moments, but the culture has changed too drastically for it to enjoy anything like the first film’s sensational popularity. Baron Cohen’s humour lies in satirising prejudices to ridicule people who hold or tolerate them. But in our post-satirical age, when the very concept of satire and the abstract thought it requires are so weakened that they now often need to be explained, his humour seems outdated and even superfluous. In a society largely captured by the new commonplace that all white people are racists, can revelations of casual prejudice still shock an audience widely trained to expect, expose, and even police it? Not really. Can a subject’s racism still be in any way amusing if one accepts – nearly as an article of faith – that racism is the evil root cause of all human woe? Probably not. Censorious millennial viewers are more likely to track down and demand the sacking of the middle-aged bakery clerk who obligingly writes “Jews will not replace us” on Borat’s cake than they are to laugh at her socially unconscious apathy. As long as two years before the sequel premiered, woketards were already arguing that the racist, sexist, and homophobic stereotypes of Borat’s vaguely Eurasian origins were unacceptable comedic material that have encouraged Westerners to demean peoples of the developing world. I doubt their sense of humour has much improved.

The film will also find little resonance with broad masses now terrorised by the notion that it is irredeemably wrong to cause any form of offence

The film will also find little resonance with broad masses now terrorised by the notion that it is irredeemably wrong to cause any form of offence. In 2006, it was natural to take Borat’s interview targets for simpletons and laugh at their foibles. Today’s viewers, however, are far more likely to intuit that the targets’ reputations and livelihoods depend on responding professionally to even the strangest and most impertinent situations, especially when they are aware that they are being filmed. A Georgia debutante coach who patiently explains that women are capable of doing many ordinary activities while menstruating, for example, is no longer merely the butt of a joke but a hostage to readily identifiable circumstances in which she could suffer serious consequences if she reacted differently. In a country where a significant percentage of the population knows that it can be publicly shamed, denied basic rights, and dismissed from employment for transgressing new speech and behavioural norms, these situational moments are much less mirthful.

The amplified power of social media also deflates this derivative sequel. When the original Borat film premiered, the first smart phones had just appeared, Facebook was in its infancy, and Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms offering instant photo and video sharing did not exist. In those halcyon days, it was easier for Baron Cohen to keep a lid on the behind-the-scenes preparation for his pranks, which consequently looked far more authentic. Now, even before the sequel’s release, many have been breezily exposed as well orchestrated setups or near-setups. In the most famous example, the 76-year old presidential attorney Rudolph Giuliani is duped into giving a hotel suite interview to Tutar posing as an admiring professional journalist. She invites him into the suite’s bedroom for a “sound check,” where he proceeds to ask her for her personal contact information, recline on the bed, and put his hands in his trousers. Borat bursts in to tell him that at age fifteen Tutar is too old for him (the actress who plays Tutar is 24), causing Giuliani to storm out in distress.

It was clearly a very embarrassing moment for America’s Mayor, a man who once prosecuted mafia bosses and led New York through 9/11 but is now reduced to claiming that he was only tucking in his shirt, an action I have never contemplated when reclining alongside a beautiful woman. He and Baron Cohen traded media barbs, with Donald Trump coming to Giuliani’s assistance by calling Baron Cohen “unfunny” and a “creep” (They have a history – many years ago Trump walked out of a fake interview with Baron Cohen in his Ali G persona and later publicly called for him to be beaten up for a tasteless Academy Awards prank). The scene’s editing leaves what really happened ambiguous, which is probably the best adjective to describe a film so out of step with our lamentable Zeitgeist.

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