Critic's Notebook: On the 'Borat' Sequel's Fresh, Fierce Feminism

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm Still - Maria Bakalova and Sacha Baron Cohen - Publicity - H - 2020
Amazon Studios

'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm'

'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' is just as funny as its predecessor, but a crucial new character lends the film's satire greater substance and timeliness.

When Sacha Baron Cohen’s most famous creation leaves his Kazakh village for the first time to visit America in 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, he instructs one of the many well-wishers who’ve gathered by the road to bid him farewell, “Urkin, not too much rapings … humans only.” It’s a gag in keeping with the rest of the earlier comedy (and perhaps the kind of edgelord humor so prevalent in the aughts): ironically xenophobic and misogynistic, with no intention of punching up (and, in this case, no compassion toward victims). We’re meant to laugh at Borat for being unable to see women past their sexual value to him, but that’s essentially true of the film, too. Its most notable female character, Pamela Anderson (playing herself), exists first to be ogled, then (unsuccessfully) kidnapped into marriage.

In most respects, the recently released Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon) is a continuation of the original. But Baron Cohen has added to his road-trip prank franchise, as well as to his body of work, a new element that gives at least the first half of the feature an unexpected freshness, especially in this era of the #MeToo movement: an exposé of male complicity in the abuse of women. And by sharing the spotlight with Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, who plays Borat’s 15-year-old daughter Tutar, Baron Cohen not only wrings for arguably the very first time some emotional resonance out of his satire, but is able to land his points more sharply and precisely.

One of the strongest and most compelling critiques of the original Borat was that, at least in some of its scenes, Baron Cohen didn’t so much reveal the dark underbellies of Americans as he did their frozen-smile politeness, especially around foreigners. There’s little such ambiguity in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm when it comes to the Americans' collusion in the Kazakh journalist’s mistreatment of his daughter, whom he intends to “give as a gift” first to Mike Pence, then to Rudy Giuliani, in the hopes of closer ties between the Kazakh and American governments. It’s never clear whether Borat wants to merely pimp out Tutar or hand her over entirely like one would a pet dog (to which the teenager is compared repeatedly). But the allusions to QAnon and Jeffrey Epstein and the literal crates and cages where Tutar is meant to sleep make sure that the word “trafficking” never leaves our minds during Moviefilm’s runtime.

One of the inescapable lessons of #MeToo has been that the only thing necessary for the triumph of abuse and exploitation is for good men to do nothing, especially when money’s involved. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm illustrates this point over and over again and, somehow, each time it manages to shock. Early in the film, when Tutar is revealed to have sneaked into the U.S. in a wooden crate meant for a monkey (a simian “porn star” that is the Kazakh government’s originally intended present to the Trumposphere), Borat gets angry and asks an American laborer standing by to “repack her please” by hammering a lid over the teenage girl standing in hay in rags. (The laborer does, and is promptly paid for it.)

Later, when Borat deems Tutar fit for better living conditions, he tells a hardware-store clerk, “I prepare my daughter for market, and I am looking for a suitable cage for her.” The clerk shows them a large livestock cage in the lot outside, and even after Tutar enters the metal box and asks, “How many other girls are going to live in here with me?” the man sells Borat the $900 enclosure.

After Tutar has an American-style makeover and comes out at a debutante ball, Borat asks a gray-haired man, “How much do you think my daughter’s worth?” Without skipping a beat, the older man grins, “Five hundred dollars,” in what he clearly means as a compliment. In one of the sole moments of female retribution, an adolescent girl that the older man seems to know tells him off: “That’s fucking gross.”

But the patriarchal complicity that most galls is when Borat and Tutar go to a crisis pregnancy center, state repeatedly that they are father and daughter and request an abortion of the fetus that is their offspring. (An extra layer of the joke in this scene is that the Kazakhs are actually talking about a plastic baby ornament that she accidentally swallowed, but Baron Cohen and Bakalova never let on that they’re not talking about an actual fetus.) If the pastor counseling them against abortion ever addressed the obvious abuse that led to this pregnancy, we don’t see footage of it. “[The incest] is not important right now,” he tells Borat and Tutar. “We’re at this moment. It really doesn't matter how we got to this moment.” The gap between moral authority and moral duty has seldom felt so wide.

The genre of the feminized sequel — in which male-driven stories add female characters or women-centric storylines, like Bo Peep’s enlarged role in Toy Story 4 or the sister’s turn to feel neglected in Lego Movie 2has a mixed track record. But Borat Subsequent Moviefilm manages to add vigor to this tired industry practice, partly because it gives the amazingly game and nimble Bakalova enough to let her nearly steal the picture (while confirming that men need not monopolize gross-out comedies), partly because the feminist criticism in the script is so timely and partly because overt empathy toward women is something relatively novel in Baron Cohen’s oeuvre.

It can’t be a coincidence that the comedian’s newfound compassion — which doesn’t make Moviefilm any less funny — makes its debut in the first of his projects in a two-decade career to have credited female co-writers (Jena Friedman and Erica Rivinoja).

The rest of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm sees Tutar realizing, with the help of a kindly babysitter named Jeanise, that the cartoonish misogyny that she’s been taught all her life — that women shouldn’t drive, that vaginas have teeth, that a man can’t love a daughter as much as he loves a son — is nonsense and that she should leave her father’s side. The second half is mostly dedicated to a twist about Borat’s role in spreading COVID-19 in America, but the gag only lands as well as it does because the father-daughter adventures in the first half establish so effectively that America is nowhere near as civilized as it wants to think — that it, too, is a “shithole country.”

In the original Borat, Baron Cohen strived to prove that Americans weren’t as enlightened as we believe ourselves to be. (Indeed, our very willingness to accept that Kazakhstan was as backward as the movie depicted it to be exposed our own provincialism.) Blame our ethnocentrism, or the novelty of Baron Cohen’s ironic xenophobia, or just his talent for making the simple words “my wife” and "very nice" into ubiquitous catchphrases, but it's undeniable that, upon its debut, Borat was received by the frattier pockets of America less as a film about the prevalence of casual anti-Semitism than as one about how hairy, tacky and stupid-sounding Eastern Europeans (or “the third world”) allegedly are.

In Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Baron Cohen is able to make his point about the hate and misogyny that pervade America more clearly — and more scathingly — by including, but not idealizing, the obvious victims of such oppression. His tactics have remained the same, but with Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Baron Cohen finally gives us what some of us have wanted from the comedian all along: growth.