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Borat’s first visit to the US happened in that impossibly distant, innocent time – 2006 – before social media, before smartphones, before the Iraq war “troop surge” when George W Bush was the most awful president imaginable.
America was hardly unused to being pranked: it had invented Candid Camera. But Sacha Baron Cohen’s monstrous creation, the clueless reporter from Kazakhstan with a daft all-purpose Soviet accent, was a next-level ordeal for his victims. With breathtaking ruthlessness, Baron Cohen executed situationist stunts and gross out hoaxes that skewered Americans’ conservative attitudes, but also their painfully polite need to be nice, and to overlook (or maybe secretly sympathise with) Borat’s antediluvian views. Borat is an antisemite, and the liberal moviegoing fanbase was, and is, very unused to seeing antisemitism in any costume other than that of Nazi Germany.
Now Baron Cohen has resurrected his awful creation for another go-around, and the shock of the new is gone, and so the shock generally. The routine is more familiar and the semi-staged stunts – which faintly undermine the credibility of all but the most spectacular moments – are more conspicuous. But there are still some real laughs and pointed political moments on the subject of antisemitism and online Holocaust denial (though I was disappointed to see the film go along with a dodgy “Karen” gag). And that finale in a hotel suite, when Borat and his teenage daughter Tutar confront a certain very prominent ex-politician who appears on the verge of a serious indiscretion … well, that is an amazing coup.
To get around the fact that everyone now recognises Borat, the idea is that he will mostly be in disguise and a lot of the pranks are effectively carried out by Tutar, whom he has brought along as a sexual gift to a senior government politician – a diplomatic gesture that he hopes will restore his homeland’s alpha male reputation in America’s eyes. Tutar, played by the 24-year-old Bulgarian actor Maria Bakalova, is a feral figure at first, content to be kept like an animal, but with dreams of becoming a conjugal success story in the US like her heroine, the Slovenian Melania. There is a clever mock-Disney Beauty-and-the-Beast-type animation about Melania that Tutar obsessively watches.
So Borat and Tutar blunder around the US, with the father transporting the daughter around in a horsebox that he tows behind his car, getting advice on how Tutar can be an aspirational young woman. There are some gobsmackingly horrible moments, especially at something called the Macon debutante ball in Georgia, enjoyed by the cream of southern society, where there is a traditional father-daughter dance. The result is gruesome.
But at this ball, almost accidentally, the film reveals something about the attitudes of the people it is satirising. Borat earnestly asks one of the snowy-haired, be-tuxed patriarchs how much he thinks Tutar is worth. About $500, the man smirks, and is coldly rebuked by his own daughter. At some level, some victims sort-of do get it and go along with it. Often, even when they don’t, they have a need not to embarrass poor Borat. It’s like a Stanford prison experiment that doesn’t prove quite as much as it thinks it does.
Borat is now encountering America in the age of Donald Trump, of course, and some of the film’s best moments come when it is exposing complacency and credulity on the subject of Covid-19. It is almost compulsory now to say that Trump has rendered satire futile, but perhaps it is truer to say that Borat was a fake-news pioneer of trolling and outrageousness, and Trump’s electoral success was basically a trolling of the Democrats and the progressives. Trump was the custard pie in the face of received wisdom and authority: an unthinkable public humiliation for the establishment, but Borat had already lowered the thinkability-threshhold.
The film concludes on a note of seriousness, telling the public to vote. Maybe Borat and Tutar’s extraordinary finale in the hotel suite really will help swing it for Joe Biden. Or perhaps it is more that a Democratic victory will be down to exhaustion, and the joke overstaying its welcome. Trump’s supporters, like Borat’s, may be wondering if the thrill is gone.
• Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is on Amazon Prime Video from 23 October.
Source: The Guardian
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