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.