We Are Still Getting Punk'd by Borat
The long-awaited sequel to Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 mockumentary about a certain Kazakh journalist is as funny, but less effective.
Still from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
It was a feeling all too familiar. Up late at night, mindlessly giggling into the gaping hole that is my laptop. Borat is in full disguise, trying to convince some guy at an anti-abortion clinic that he “put a baby,” in his daughter, Tutar. What unfolds isn’t an incest scenario, although that’s not entirely off limits for this wacky Kazakh journalist. A few minutes earlier in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, or Borat 2, Borat gives his daughter a cupcake with bright blue frosting and a plastic figurine of a baby on the top. He feeds it to her behind a dumpster, because women aren’t allowed to have cake, apparently. She swallows the baby in question. For some reason I think this is funny and roll on my side and start laughing.
I feel like I’ve been watching Borat for my whole life. In reality, it’s been about five years since I got heavily into Sacha Baron Cohen’s arsenal of gotcha jokes and casual nudity. It happened when I was nineteen. I had a nervous breakdown and found myself pretty much only able to watch Ratatouille and Borat because they were both about friendship and following your dreams. In Ratatouille, Remy Rat’s dream is to be the best rat chef in Paris and his best friend is a human chef named Luigi. In Borat, Borat’s dream is to abduct Pamela Anderson and his best friend is his producer Azamat Bagatov. I haven’t really watched Ratatouille since, but I’ve seen Borat somewhere between 8-11 times. I’ve already written about it this year. It is a movie that feels like constant background noise. When I watch it, it makes my brain quiet down. I tell my younger brother this, and he compares me to Meadow Soprano, who has also apparently seen Borat many times and is a girl.
Borat 2 is Baron Cohen’s attempt to turn Borat into some kind of feminist text, which is interesting to me because the whole shtick of Borat is that it’s deliberately nihilistic in every sense and that’s basically the point of the movie. The plot of the first Borat is literally about kidnapping a woman, and many of the jokes hinge on pranking society ladies, and making fun of a women’s rights group. It’s complicated. Nothing about Borat is clearcut, which made it such a destabilizing and ultimately vital touchstone in aughts-era comedy. The first Borat film was brilliant because of how deftly it ensnared its victims, most of which were idiotic, racist white people. The whole point of Baron Cohen’s character is to be offensive to get people to open up to him about their ridiculous and fucked up thoughts. It worked especially well the first time around because Baron Cohen tricked people into thinking that he was bumbling and harmless.
It makes Baron Cohen’s second attempt at the Borat character a high-stakes event by virtue of the fact that making a Borat joke is as quotidian as making a “your mom,” joke or doing a Cartman impression on a first date. For the most part, the movie is a lot less effective but equally funny. It’s not that the joke has gotten old, it’s more like the joke has become a lot more difficult to pull off. The way that Baron Cohen attempts to ameliorate this is in the inclusion of Maria Bakalova, a 24-year-old Bulgarian actress who plays Borat’s 15-year-old daughter Tutar. In the course of the movie’s hour-and-a-half runtime, she transforms from an objectively rabid teenager into Black Sea Megyn Kelly. Tutar’s transformation is where the film’s thesis lies. The complexity of being a woman under the chaos of Trumpian fascism, at least for Tutar, involves getting spray tans, referring to Melania as “the happiest wife in the world,” free bleeding, having a full bush, watching Rudy Giuliani almost whip his dick out, and living in a cage, among other things. It makes fun of white women and their inherent racism, and it makes fun of white men for upholding obscene systems of power.
The ways in which Bakalova and Baron Cohen explore these power structures together is very amusing, but the results are muddled. You could call Tutar and Borat two-dimensional characters and you would be right, which also happens to be the point of the movie. At its best, Baron Cohen’s investment in feminism makes for an interesting reconfiguration of the Borat character. Baron Cohen will probably never be able to harness the initial shock factor that made his first Borat film successful. We are too jaded by evil at this point in time to be particularly jolted by casual examples of fascism. Donald Trump is literally president; American nihilism is at its zenith right now. Borat 2 is a good movie then not because of the potency of its political satire but because of the reason why I have watched the first Borat movie almost a dozen times: it’s funny and there is nothing more delightful in this world than watching truly evil people get extremely Punk’d.