I remember seeing the original “Borat” movie in theaters in 2006.
I had recently graduated from Indiana University and moved to Jacksonville, Florida to accept a job at a newspaper. I didn’t know anyone there and my father flew into town to hang out with me.
We went to watch the Indianapolis Colts take on the Jacksonville Jaguars and we were really excited. Expectations were high that Peyton Manning would destroy our usually pitiful opponent.
On the Jaguars’ first play, running back Fred Taylor ran for 76 yards. Eventually, the team ran for a franchise record 375 yards and my father and I were taunted by Jags fans leaving the stadium as the Colts were defeated.
(Side note: The radio announcer overhead as we were leaving said, “Looks like another first round playoff exit for the Colts this year.”We ended up winning the Super Bowl that year. So take that.)
Needless to say, my father was depressed. He flew 900 miles to see his favorite team get absolutely destroyed.
So I said to my father, “You need cheering up. Let’s go to a movie.”
He wasn’t in the mood but he went along and we saw “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
My father had never heard of British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen and he laughed so hard that he almost fell out of his seat. Seriously, I was afraid that the movie theater staff were going to escort us out for causing a disruption.
“Borat” was a huge box office hit, grossing $260 million worldwide. He was a popular Halloween costume for years to come and people would quote the accented character’s iconic “My wiiiiife!” catchphrase. Eventually, the amateur impersonations would rival only Napoleon Dynamite for their ability to annoy.
What made “Borat” so hilarious was a combination of political satire and shock value. The over-the-top parody of foreigners brought to life the xenophobia in the United States. And a few real-life people, including a group of fraternity brothers and a homophobic rodeo cowboy, showed what some Americans are really like.
Cohen attempted a follow up movie a few years later featuring another one of his characters, Bruno, a gay Austrian fashion reporter. The movie was not nearly as funny and part of the difficulty is that Cohen had become a household name and could no longer trick unsuspecting people with his character. Everyone knew it was a stunt.
Fourteen years later, we finally get a true sequel to “Borat” but people haven’t forgotten the character, making it necessary for the character himself to choose to dress in disguise. Cohen filmed it very quickly and somewhat secretly during the COVID-19 lockdown, although some news reports came out that he had been spotted in character and that a new movie was expected.
Things are much different than they were in 2006. Back then, George W. Bush was president and cell phone cameras didn’t exist (to capture Cohen on the street). Nowadays, real life is so increasingly bizarre and unbelievable that it’s difficult to parody 2020. Donald Trump might be even more “out-there” than the character Borat.
Cohen takes aim at a few modern day targets including anti-maskers, anti-abortion activists, QAnon conspiracy theorists and Rudy Giuliani himself in a climactic appearance that likely has been spoiled by recent news coverage (and quickly I will say that it doesn’t look like Rudy was really touching himself, so the coverage is overblown).
Cohen apparently lived in quarantine with a pair of conspiracy theorists for five days and had to stay in character the entire time. That’s really interesting and I bet a “making of” feature might be more interesting than this actual sequel.
The new wrinkle in this sequel is that Borat is escorted by his 15-year-old daughter played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie involve her character and she’s able to trick some unsuspecting subjects where Cohen is unable.
Due to the lack of anonymity, this sequel relies on a written narrative more than the original movie which was often just a collection of skits. And the story in this sequel is a sweet one, worthy of being told.
But in the end “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” isn’t very funny and that’s the true barometer of whether it’s a “great success.”
What was once funny about Borat has now become annoying and it’s difficult to have the same impact on audiences who are no longer surprised.
People are much harder to shock nowadays and Cohen’s pranks just fall flat.
In the end, I think much of comedy comes down to surprising an audience. That’s why sequels to comedies are usually terrible (“Caddyshack 2” “Meet the Fockers” “Zoolander 2” and “Anchorman 2” come to mind).
Everyone that hated the first “Borat” movie will hate the sequel just as movie. But I suspect only about half of the people who enjoyed the original comedy will end up liking this new version.