Face it: the once devastatingly sharp blade of Sacha Baron Cohen's Khazakstani comedic creation has dulled. Here is why.
When Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan came out in 2006, it was "laugh like you might die laughing" funny. The fake reporter format Cohen had perfected on TV was set free in feature film form, and it upended the culture in more ways than one. From the endless repetitions of his catch-phrases to the inability of people to trust the intent of a camera pointed at them, Borat was arguably a game-changer.
It also treads where few comedies manage to go. Borat's genius lay in making himself the clown, but using the clown to hold a mirror up to the worst part of the subjects he interviewed. In turn, he peeled back layers of American culture and revealed something hilariously ugly underneath.
From a filmmaking standpoint, the degree of difficulty in a movie like Borat couldn't be higher. Cohen endangered himself physically and legally to make the film. It was bombastic, risky, and more than a little insane.
The payoff was obviously massive, but this went far beyond the simple notion of stealing shots. Borat went where few filmmakers are willing to go. In terms of content, in terms of where you put a camera. In terms of what you're willing to say and stand behind.
The fame and renown that ensued made a sequel impossible.
Ah, but Hollywood can't turn down a follow-up to a hit.
The reason Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan doesn't work isn't just because Borat is so recognizable now... that's a minor hurdle they can work around rather quickly.
The real reason is that the world changed a lot.
Did Borat help effect the change himself?
The genius behind the original Borat was that act of revelation. You thought, "Oh my god... they're really willing to say that..."
The Borat character said the quiet part loud. His interview subjects had a chance to react to it... but often didn't. They allowed, accepted, and agreed. It was a massive "gotcha" moment. Cohen was revealing implicit bias, racism, antisemitism, hate, ignorance. All of that.
But something strange has happened in the 14 years since.
Well, a lot of strange things have happened, but the net result of those strange things is this. People stopped caring about the quiet part staying quiet.
Which is to say, being openly and overtly hateful on-camera... in public... is the new norm.
What actually could have made Borat 2 better?
In one sequence in Borat 2, Borat quarantines with a few conspiracy theorist conservatives who actually seem a little more reasonable in some ways than we've come to expect. With things like QAnon and Pizzagate out there, there isn't much these two guys could do that would feel out there or shocking.
There is a nearly fascinating moment in the quarantine sequence where Borat is baiting the guys into their deepest-held conspiracy theories about the democrats and their evil agenda. It almost seems like there could have been a reflection on how maybe both sides of the current political landscape go to extremes in their hatred of the other, but then the mark concludes that Hillary Clinton certainly drinks the blood of children... which is beyond any kind of normalcy.
But it begs the question, could there have been a Borat 2 that investigates the fringe beliefs on the other end of the spectrum, and holds that up to the same scrutiny?
There is a far-left culture that is certainly fringe enough. The one that has anti-vaccination views, doesn't trust the government either... but the timing might have been off, given the upcoming election cycle and Cohen's own interest in toppling the current regime.
Not exactly the right time to go "both sides" on the issue.
I suspect Cohen saw the moment of opportunity here, in this extremely crazy landscape, to bring Borat back. After all, the nature of the far-right in power at the moment is so reflective of Borat's humor. But therein lies the problem. The intent of the clown is to point out hypocrisy, reveal the hated brimming beneath the surface, get them to say the quiet part out loud.
These groups don't care about hypocrisy. They don't hesitate to reveal the hatred. It is the surface. And the quiet part has become a dog whistle through a megaphone.
Cohen belongs in a pantheon with great comedic talents that have used the genius of their comedy to paint unflattering pictures of those in power. The first Borat movie is a notable moment in cinema and cultural history. Like Duck Soup or The Great Dictator, it tears down the norms of society in an act of pure comedy anarchy. Nothing is left standing.
The walls of today's American society are so bonkers... it's hard to know how you can go about tearing them down. Where is the parody?
In one scene Borat is buying a cage for his daughter. The man selling the cage hardly bats an eye. You can almost feel Cohen trying to get some semblance of shock out of him. He even mentioned the idea of the cages children have been placed in by ICE at our borders. But the ensuing high five over that doesn't really seem surprising.
People know about ICE, and the children separated from families. We've seen the cages. We also know that so many American's don't mind. How do you parody that? How do you poke fun? How do you go even further?
Even the big finale that involves Rudy Giuliani is hardly shocking. In light of Jeffrey Epstein, and President Trump's own behavior and comments on a consistent basis, how was Giuliani's willingness to cross that line with a young reporter in any way shocking?
And that's the problem.
Comedy works best when it surprises us. The ugly side of America has become all too familiar.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments.
After watching last night, I thought it was hilarious. It's an absurdist comedy but more so a political statement. After getting the right to far-right to clearly point out their ridiculousness or hatred (the one guy literally said he wish he could kill Democrats), he literally tells you to go vote in the credits (if you're still paying attention). The entire thing was to show you how crazy the extreme yet downright dirty the Trumpers really are, and the hypocrisy of America. It's funny how much he got away with at each spot of business, simply because he was paying them, so everyone looked the other way. It was a brilliant commentary on capitalism, the state of the nation, and the far-right movement.
October 29, 2020 at 11:30AM
There are left extremists as far as the right? Every side has its wing-nuts, but I’m not seeing leftists plotting assassinations and stock piling weapons. I found this subsequent movie film even more poignant and appropriate in today’s more extreme climate. In the first film it seemed quite farcical and this one, mired in a world steeped in absurdity. I applaud Cohen’s continued effort to call out the perverse.
October 29, 2020 at 11:37AM
Thank you! Good, god I hate this "both-sidism" BS. Just because there are two sides to every argument does not mean both sides have credibility. We're not just talking about people's damn feelings here. I too would love to hear of this massive group and following that believes in the equal and opposite view that the Democrats are nothing but a child molesting/trafficking cabal that drinks children's blood and that every single one of Trumps verbal and written mistakes are actually really secret messages to his Q followers. Please enlighten me with this equally outrageous group on the left......I'll wait.....
October 29, 2020 at 3:25PM
I couldn't have said it better myself Mr. Glockler! I thought that Sacha's blade is honed to a fine edge in this sequel.
November 2, 2020 at 2:01AM
I think that this Borat may work even better than the first. Yes, it is true that the extremism of the far-right has been normalized, but it isn't often that the public gets to see these people in these settings, in their everyday life. We see these people at rallies and protests where they are at their loudest, but not in their places of work or in their homes where they let their guards down. It is in these settings that we see what unfolds and it is made clear that these things are really happening and people feel the way they do.
October 29, 2020 at 4:15PM
Was he ever funny. The only thing I ever laughed at that he did was when he went to New York after the first movie came out and hew as making the rounds promoting it and pulled his Borat skit and a couple of guys beat the crap out of him. Now that was good comedy.
October 29, 2020 at 6:16PM, Edited October 29, 6:18PM
"There is a far-left culture that is certainly fringe enough." Yeah, that's maybe a few hundred people. Anti vaxers are not necessarily left wing at all. We have 45 million right wing extremists. (Yes, if you support Trump you are a racist extremist). The false equivalency is killing us.
October 29, 2020 at 6:41PM
I found nothing wrong with Borat, neither the old one, or the new film. If new Borat felt more crazy, it's because the world is more crazy and more polarized than it once was. But I didn't see any hypocrisy as the article states. I just saw exposure of humanity's decline. But then again, when was humanity "great"? Never. Human violence and insanity was always there, in all of our recorded history. It's just that sometimes it's more visible and exposed, due to socio-political issues. Such as now. But it was always there, lying under falsehoods of religious morality, and such.
October 29, 2020 at 7:09PM
"Not exactly the right time to go 'both sides' on the issue."
Actually, NOW more than ever is EXACTLY the right time to do that....unless of course you WANT to drive an ideology or the further divide of folks.
I miss folks like Carlin and Hicks whose comedy looked larger/bigger and was opposed to hypocritical and ideological thinking of ALL kinds from an individual (without ideology) perspective.
The rest unfortunately becomes a little sleazy and potentially manipulative.
October 31, 2020 at 5:39PM, Edited October 31, 5:51PM