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“High five!” the American Film Institute congratulated 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as it bestowed an AFI Award for one of the 10 best films of that year on the transgressive comedy, adding, “The joy of the film is that no ivory tower is too tall for Borat. He targets Christians and Jews, feminists and frat boys, and all the while offering a global catharsis; for if we can laugh together, we can live together.” In retrospect, that now-we-can-all-get-along platitude certainly looks like wishful thinking, but there was no denying that the first Borat, in which prankster Sacha Baron Cohen donned a Groucho-esque mustache to travel across America in the character of Kazakhstan journalist Borat Sagdiyev, was greeted as a worthy awards contender.
The film was nominated for adapted screenplay honors by both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the WGA. Baron Cohen took home the Golden Globe for best comedy actor. And the film was named best comedy at the Critics Choice Awards.
But history may not be about to repeat itself because when the AFI issued its list of the top 10 movies of 2020 on Jan. 25, Baron Cohen’s newest cinematic outing, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, was conspicuously missing. And while Maria Bakalova, the Bulgarian actress who plays Borat’s daughter, Tutar, has emerged as a favorite of Oscar handicappers, the movie itself hasn’t been getting the same attention.
In part, the film is facing the fate of many a sequel, struggling to match, let alone surpass, the high expectations set by its original. When the first Borat burst onto the scene, Baron Cohen still was a relatively unknown commodity on the worldwide stage despite his appearances on British television, mostly in the person of his hip-hop-parodying character Ali G. At the Cannes Film Festival that year, he could satirize paparazzi-courting starlets by walking the Croisette in a lime green mankini without being totally mobbed. And on film, his uncanny ability to punk establishment figures and his anything-for-a-laugh audaciousness — like that naked wrestling match with co-star Ken Davitian — were outrageously daring. Audiences responded, with the film, directed by Larry Charles, earning $262.5 million worldwide.
When Subsequent Moviefilm, shot in secret under Jason Woliner’s direction, made its surprise appearance in October — to a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 85 percent, down slightly from the original’s 91 percent — the biggest complaint was that it was just not as funny as the first film. That’s probably because Baron Cohen’s guerrilla-style modus operandi — which also was on display in 2009’s Bruno, where he played a gay fashionista, and the 2018 Showtime series Who Is America?, in which he resorted to a series of disguises — had lost some of its novelty. And probably also because the new movie, instead of appearing in theaters where laughter is contagious, made its debut on Amazon and so was viewed by most in relative isolation without any raucous audience feedback. You also have to factor into the equation the fact that the new Borat movie is simply a more serious undertaking. Sure, Baron Cohen’s real mission in the first movie was to expose racism and anti-Semitism, even if plotwise that movie was driven simply by Borat’s silly quest to marry Pamela Anderson. This time around, the stakes were bigger. As Baron Cohen has explained it, he took Borat out of mothballs for a final U.S.-of-A. tour because he was convinced that under now-former President Donald Trump, democracy itself was in peril.
Where the AFI welcomed the first Borat for its cathartic laughter, the new film is using laughter as more of a cleansing exorcism. Borat’s attempt to deliver Tutar first to then-Vice President Mike Pence at last year’s CPAC conference and then to Rudy Giuliani in a New York hotel room was not just a goof but an urgent effort to aim one more attack at the Trump administration before voters headed to the polls. The amazing thing is that, even though forced to shoot the film on the fly under pandemic restrictions, Baron Cohen and his team not only delivered a coherent howl of protest but also brought the whole odyssey to an end with a breathtaking final twist. Hailing the movie as the best film of the year, New York Times critic A.O. Scott praised it for “capturing the feeling of its moment with dismaying accuracy.”
It’s almost as if Baron Cohen took a cue from Abbie Hoffman, the anarchic activist he plays in The Trial of the Chicago 7. When Eddie Redmayne’s more politically minded Tom Hayden accuses Hoffman of hijacking the movement with his attention-seeking displays, Hoffman is unapologetic, arguing that it’s just because “I stage stunts, and cameras come and microphones come” that he hopes to effect a cultural revolution. To which, Borat would likely add, “Very nice!“
This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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