Woliner: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
The second Borat film is closer in spirit to Sacha Baron Cohen’s series Who is America? and his role as Abbie Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7 than to the original film, which now seems to belong to a whole different era of cinematic pranking. Since Borat himself has become a meme in the interim, Subsequent Moviefilm can’t possibly be driven by the novelty of Borat as a character, or Cohen as a performer. Instead, this is an election text – a political appeal dressed up in a prank film, designed for maximum impact in the days and weeks before the US polls close on Tuesday afternoon. Again, we start in Kazakhstan, but this time around Borat is joined by his daughter, Tutar, played by Maria Bakalova, who he brings to America as a tribute for Mike Pence, hoping she can marry him and become the next “Queen Melania.”
Borat was initially a projection of America’s fears about the Middle East and derived a lot of his comic cache by reflecting the USA’s venality back upon itself. That Middle Eastern panic is a bit less emphatic this time around, meaning that Subsequent Moviefilm falters during its opening half, as Cohen experiments with ways to make his iconic character feel iconic again in 2020. In addition, Borat’s main schtick was provocative political incorrectness – a strategy that has now been thoroughly claimed by the “truth-tellers” of the alt-right, meaning that Borat’s efforts to shock conservative folk with graphically perverse tidbits never really lands.
Fifteen years later, the public is also more attuned, generally, to the kinds of pranks that Borat (and Cohen) could once pull with aplomb. Most of the first half of Subsequent Moviefilm follows Borat as he takes Tutar from one Texas strip mall to the next, asking for a series of increasingly bizarre items that are (presumably) supposed to capture how normal misogyny is in the Deep South. For the most part, however, these cashiers and retail assistants are merely as polite as you’d expect them to be with a camera crew in their store. Even if they don’t know of Borat specifically (and some of them clearly do), reality television is now so embedded in the fabric of American life that every single person knows how to go with the flow, even if they don’t fully get (or care about) the exact prank playing out in this instance.
As a result, there’s nothing in this first half of the film that definitively feels as if it couldn’t be staged. To be honest, Cohen could have done with less story here, and less investment in fleshing out Borat’s relationship with his daughter. Like most of Cohen’s characters, Borat is interactive above all else, so he has a pretty limited appeal without people who don’t know how to take him. All you really need for Subsequent Moviefilm to work is to just let him wander through the red states – and fortunately that’s just what Cohen opts to do in the second half, which starts with a terrific sequence in which Borat punctures the gentility of a Georgian debutante ball. Apparently, this scene was partly staged, but the real parts are quite discernible and raw, paving the way for a trio of pranks that make the whole film worthwhile.
Interestingly, all three of these pranks involve Cohen discarding the Borat costume to go into deep cover – and so conceding that Borat has perhaps passed his used-by date, at least when it comes to the prank comedy that Cohen has made his own. The first of these occurs at a Conservative Political Action Conference with Mike Pence as keynote speaker, which Cohen crashes with not one but two brilliant disguises. First, he storms into the lobby in a KKK hood, and then he puts on a surprisingly convincing Trump body suit, slinging Tutar over his shoulder and offering her to Pence as he’s right in the midst of convincing the conference participants that the Republican Party has the best possible hold on the imminent coronavirus pandemic.
The whole film would be worth it just for the look on Pence’s face – part horror, part rage, and part shock that Cohen has managed to impersonate and caricature a President with such an uncanny knack for absorbing and internalising all possibilities of parody. This segues naturally into the next set piece, which sees Cohen go undercover to hook up with a pair of QAnon devotees, who believe that the Clintons tortured children and injected the blood directly into their adrenal glands. With these two characters in tow, Cohen attends an anti-lockdown protest, where he claims to be a country artist and performs an anti-lockdown song.
While the Pence get was great, this is where Subsequent Moviefilm genuinely recovers the sense of risk that made the original Borat (and Bruno) so great. Not only are people wandering around with semi-automatic weapons slung casually over their shoulders, but we’re now fairly deep into the pandemic, meaning that Cohen is maskless in a potential hotspot – no small risk for an actor who’s almost fifty. As it turned out, Cohen was hounded into his bus by some of the protestors – the clip, which he shared with Jimmy Fallon, is on YouTube – and that sense of imminent danger, from both guns and virus, gives this scene a genuine edginess.
Having examined elite Republicans (Pence), middle-class Republicans (a sketch at a women’s group) and working-class Republicans, Cohen now turns his hand to the inner sanctum of the Republican Party itself, as if to evoke the continuity between its presumptions of legitimacy and the far fringes of Republican supernaturalism we glimpse with the QAnon supporters. With most of Trump’s associates in jail, under arrest or under house arrest, Cohen turns his attention to Rudy Giuliani, resulting in one of the best gets and eeriest scenes in his career.
For much of the first half of the film, Cohen uses Borat and Tutar’s relationship to indicate what you have to do to be considered a woman in the Trumpian era. While these early scenes don’t make for great comedy, they do include some remarkably powerful moments, from Tutar’s interactions with the Hillsborough Republican Women’s Club, to her interview with a prominent Instagram influencer, who confides that “as a woman you have to be weak, we can’t be strong any more” before recommending she get a sugar daddy as soon as she’s able.
This trend feeds into both the comic and dramatic apex of the film, as Tutar poses as an interviewer in order to catch Guiliani off his guard. After performing the last two big sketches in disguise, Cohen completely vanishes from view here, and effectively retires the Borat persona from the film, using Tutar (and Bakalova) as his proxy. This restores the opportunity for genuine entrapment, since Giuliani would certainly know of Cohen, and would probably have been warned against him. The result is incredible – Giuliani is lecherous from the outset, flirting and touching Tutar at every opportunity. We’ve heard all the comments he makes about COVID-19 here before, but the intimacy and candour of this scene makes his claims about the virus even more outrageous and perverse, thanks in part to Bakalova’s dexterity.
So great is Babalova, in fact, that I initially questioned Cohen’s decision to intrude into the interview under the guise of a sound designer. Yet this works brilliantly to “nettle” Tutar, and so tempt Giuliani into “protector” mode, as he seeks to assuage and comfort her. We then witness the perverse pleasure principal of the Republican mindset in full swing, as conservative “protection” segues seamlessly into lechery, and the interview slides to the bedroom, where Cohen and Bakalova end it on the very cusp of assault, as Giuliani is starting to undress on the bed. It’s the perfect image for the open secret of assault that hangs over the Republican party at present, from Trump to Kavanaugh to the Epstein scandal, and Cohen wisely chooses to end on this note, only opting for the most cursory of epilogues from here.
This cusp of assault is even more dramatic in that Cohen has a particular penchant for full-frontal male nudity, which nearly always climaxes his transgressions of good taste. He realises that the phallic potency of American media depends on its refusal to conceive of male genitals as a spectacle that can be shown – let alone shown creatively or erotically – so synonymous are they with the assumed gaze of the audience. Subsequent Moviefilm is his first film without this crude full-frontal nudity, and yet the brief glimpse of it in this final scene makes Giuliani, and the Republican Party he serves, seem like the logical endpoint of all Cohen’s exercises in bad taste. Like Cohen, Giuliani is a trickster – he’s almost a Cohen persona – and in that convergence lies the final brilliance of Subsequent Moviefilm, which may not have quite enough in it for a cinematic release, but as telemovie is close to the perfect pre-election text.
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