But “Borat 2,” as I’ll call it to save my keyboard some wear and tear, suffers its inability to pull off the original movie’s key trick: star Sacha Baron Cohen insinuating his “reporter from Kazakhstan” into unlikely places under the guise of learning about America. He used and abused the general politeness of Americans to demonstrate that some folks are willing to go along with silly things — like, say, a foreigner bringing a bag of his own feces from the toilet to the table during a dinner party — in order to keep a stranger in a strange land from feeling strange.
The funniest thing in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” wasn’t the humorous situations our misguided journalist in love with Pamela Anderson found himself in. It wasn’t the rubes he was mocking or the pols he was making light of. No, it was Borat himself, the exuberant man-child whose catch-phrases like “mah wife!” became lingua franca for a generation bereft of sitcom-style touchstones. He’s a modern-day reimagining of Navin Johnson, Steve Martin’s naif in “The Jerk”: hailing from a backwater and gifted with half a brain, his bumbling and stumbling through America’s high and low society is only tolerable because he’s such a simpleton.
“Borat 2” can’t rely on this shtick, however, because the original movie made Borat too recognizable. Instead, Cohen has to adopt a disguise on top of a disguise to do his monkeyshines, traveling the country in the guise of a man escorting his daughter to various places including the Texas State Fair, a crisis pregnancy center, a plastic surgeon and the Conservative Political Action Conference.
It’s a disaster. Stripped of Borat’s genial imbecility, the general unfunniness and cruelty of the bits become apparent for all to see. Watch as Borat’s daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) tells a group of Republican women about masturbating for the first time! Revel in mirth as Borat makes a mockery of a pair of rubes with a Don’t Tread on Me flag who were kind enough to take him in in the midst of the covid-19 epidemic! Laugh at the impoverished Central Europeans interfering in American elections even though they have no technology more sophisticated than iPhone 4s!
It’s the treatment of Kazakhstan in the first movie where the cruelty inherent to the Borat conceit first becomes inescapable. In that film, a group of villagers were paid a handful of euros and told they were partaking in a documentary, only to be presented as inbred prostitutes and abortionists whose annual Running of the Jew is the village’s greatest festival. While the village’s lawsuit against the production was destined to fail — indeed, was likely just another effort by foreign hucksters to earn some PR on its back — it served as a handy reminder that these were real people, with real hopes and real dreams, whom Cohen and his cronies were mocking.
That’s the problem with both of these movies. Cohen and his cronies always make sure that it’s socially acceptable to laugh at his American targets. In this line of thinking, it’s okay to chuckle when Borat destroys an antique shop’s goods in the first film because the owner has some Confederate paraphernalia. It’s fine to laugh at Rudy Giuliani being set up with a Project Veritas-style sting that shows him doing nothing more than being overly kind to a pretty foreign reporter, because after all, Giuliani has devolved into a Trumpist hack. That helps explain the critical acclaim these movies have received: It’s completely fine to be unfunny, so long as you’re mean to the right sort of rube.
The late Christopher Hitchens had Cohen’s number 14 years ago, pushing back against the tide by noting that the humor in “Borat” really works only because Americans are so conscientious about trying to accept those who are different.
“It’s that attitude of painfully maintained open-mindedness and multiculturalism that is really being unmasked and satirized by our man from the ‘stan,” he wrote upon the first film’s release. If “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is forcing me to pick a hero, I’ll side with the ostensible rubes at a cotillion ball or a hard-working babysitter rather than the actors trying to shock them into breaking their composure.
Read more from Act Four: