Sacha Baron Cohen’s controversial Kazakhstani reporter, Borat, has returned fourteen years later to ignite fresh scandal and has most definitely succeeded. Much like the first Borat film, we follow the famously moustachioed protagonist on a journey through North America. This time, however, the landscape is somewhat altered, and Borat finds himself accompanied by his daughter Tutar, adding a welcome sentimental dimension. The cleverly timed release of the film allows for a panoramic view of the cavernous divides in US society during the Coronavirus pandemic and in the lead-up to the much anticipated 2020 presidential election.
The comedy is, as ever, somewhat silly and, on occasion, verges on vulgarity. Several moments – most notably the ‘fertility dance’ at a southern debutante ball and the ‘would you like to see her hair?’ moment at a small, suburban hairdressers – are almost unwatchable for the sheer cringing they induce.
But for all its comedic legacy, it is not the humour that makes Borat 2 so truly unforgettable – nor is it, I think, Cohen’s ultimate intention. Underneath its demandingly acerbic exterior lies a careful and sensitive examination of US society at its most vulnerable, with deep-cut divisions shown to exist on almost every contemporary issue, from the social responsibility of mask-wearing to the politics of breast implants, to escalating tensions in Sino-American relations.
The genius of Cohen has always had its roots in his ability to induce a degree of comfort in his acquaintances – or victims, if you like – so that viewers watch them slowly slip into self-exposure, confidently voicing views that are often perverted, discriminatory or sometimes straightforwardly criminal (most memorably the plastic surgeon admitting that he would perform a ‘sex-attack’ on Tutar if her ‘father’ weren’t present). Another shocker takes place when Borat appears at a March for Our Rights rally in Olympia, Washington, echoing the hazardous tone of the moment in the first Borat film where he decides to sing the Kazakhstani national anthem to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a rodeo. Such provocation goes further than inciting awkwardness – it is reasonable to actually fear for his safety, the temperature of political passion is so high.
And yet, through all the disheartening displays of disunion and aggression, Cohen remains faithful to the spectrum in its full capacity and exposes true instances of humanity from occasionally unlikely sources. We might be quick to judge the two conspiracy theorists who voice a violent hatred towards Democrats and people who believe in the existence of Coronavirus, but they nevertheless come across quite well by the end of the film: they have a genuine concern for Borat’s wellbeing, take him in even though he is posing as a foreigner and sincerely want to help him find Tutar. What Cohen makes us see is that these are not ‘bad’ people, but rather inherently good people who have fallen victim to vindictive and targeted machinations and now have ‘bad’, or at least intolerant, views.
Another such instance of kindness comes from the Holocaust survivors at the synagogue Borat visits, dressed as a stereotypical Jew. His outfit, complete with fake nose and money bag, is so outrageous in its xenophobia that another moment of cringe-worthy hostility is anticipated. But all he is met with is an understanding old woman with a genuine desire to educate him out of his ignorance.
It is this type of exposure that makes the film so much more than ninety-six minutes of well-composed pranks. First, Cohen shows us the divides, but over time he shows us that we as humans are essentially all the same, and capable of acting as such, too. This enlightened view nevertheless makes for uncomfortable viewing in a time of such political rivalry, where people seem to almost enjoy hating the ‘them’ and supporting the ‘us’. Once we see that people who are different from us can also be good, kind and well-intentioned, where can we go from there? Well, Borat’s answer is simple: vote, as the credits demand – tackle the serious problems with your democratic right, make fun of them, laugh together, but act. Life is funny, but beneath the fun there are vital problems that cannot be ignored.