‘Borat 2’: Don’t let me be misunderstood

Back in 2014, director David Fincher — in a rare public appearance — spoke at San Diego Comic-Con at a panel celebrating the 15th anniversary of his cult film turned classic, “Fight Club.” While there, the two-time Oscar nominee shared a story.

”My daughter had a friend named Max,” he said. “She told me ‘Fight Club’ is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.”

Fans of “Fight Club” have long been the butt of the joke among film majors, but usually as a caricature: the pretentious, flannel-clad jack*ss who will mansplain Quentin Tarantino to you if you’re not careful. But leave it to the director of “Fight Club” himself to get to the heart of the matter.

“It’s a satire,” Fincher said. “Many don’t get that.”

I have a feeling that Sacha Baron Cohen knows a little about that pain. The English comic exploded into the American pop culture consciousness with his 2006 mockumentary, “Borat,” subtitled “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Cohen, disguised as the dim-witted Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, duped dozens of unsuspecting Americans into exposing their deep-seated bigotry on camera, and it was a smashing success with critics and audiences alike.

But 14 years later, I’ve come to the conclusion that many fans of “Borat” don’t understand “Borat.” The film has evolved from an Oscar nominee to a frat boy favorite, and when I listen to white guys quote it like the Bible, I have to wonder: What do they think the joke is? Do they realize it’s satire? Are they laughing at the absurdity of, say, antisemitism, or are they laughing at Jewish people? There’s a difference.

Sacha Baron Cohen seems to agree. In “Borat 2” aka “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the satirist abandons subtext altogether. The film is overtly political, skewering Donald Trump, his party and, in one particularly painful sequence, Rudy Giuliani.

The reaction from “Borat” super fans has, predictably, been mixed. How do you rationalize the realization that you’re probably one of the chumps that Cohen is trying to expose? But for fans of the original who actually possess some critical thinking skills, “Borat 2” presents a different kind of challenge: Is the film any fun when you’re being talked down to?

I don’t think anyone expected “Borat 2” to be better than the original. But in 2020, I also don’t think anyone’s surprised that the premise has lost its bite. In our current political climate, you don’t need to don disguises or use hidden cameras to catch people saying vile things; all you have to do is watch the news. Nothing is shocking anymore.

Furthermore, the popularity of the Borat character means that Cohen has lost his greatest asset: anonymity. Now, every joke involves costumes upon costumes, where complicated set-ups are diluted by predictable punchlines. Some of it is still very funny, but unlike last time, there are breaks in between all the laughter. And at a paltry 96 minutes, breaks aren’t something “Borat 2” can afford.

Cohen, of course, remains a gifted character actor, and he’s joined this time by Bulgarian newcomer Maria Bakalova as his daughter. Despite the banality of this set-up — must every long-awaited sequel introduce the main character’s children? — Bakalova is a real find, a fantastic character actor herself who not only keeps pace with Cohen’s quick-witted improv, but carries some of the film’s most shocking sequences solo. Her character arc, spurred by moments both staged and spontaneous, is surprisingly poignant. And speaking of the script, the last-second twist is a knockout.

So don’t be mistaken: “Borat 2” didn’t just happen to release in 2020. It is a product of 2020 — an unapologetic refutation of it. The film ends with a title card, written in Russian: “Now vote.”

Now vote. 6/10

This review was originally published on October 27, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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