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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Borat isn’t just ‘Very Nice!’ anymore

Taking crude commentary, social criticism to new heights

“What is more dangerous, this virus or the Democrats?” asks Borat Sagdiyev to his American hosts, Jerry Holleman and Jim Russell. “The Democrats,” they quickly answered. Sascha Baron Cohen spent five days in “quarantine” with the two conservative QAnon believers that let him stay in their home, in character, as Borat. During that time, the foreign reporter could be seen killing the virus with a frying pan, sporting a strap-on of sorts while exercising and ordering the wrong kind of flashlight. Holleman and Russell had assumed and remained under the impression that Cohen was just a confused foreign reporter who didn’t know what was going on at the start of the pandemic.

As you may remember, Baron Cohen introduced this character in his 2006 mock-documentary style film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” In the guise of a foreign reporter visiting the U.S., Baron Cohen was able to deliver numerous social criticisms while maintaining a level of absurdity through an offensive, often vile character. Borat’s misogyny goes widely unnoticed and only does so in part of the natural anti-Semitic beliefs that he displays throughout the film.

While the film was well received in both the U.S. and the UK, numerous Arab countries banned the film, including the “Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” where the film was certainly not as well received, all things considered. At the box office, the film grossed over $262 million worldwide with a budget of $18 million.

What sets “Borat” aside from other comedies is Baron Cohen’s impeccable ability to blend slapstick antics with social satire in a way that looks and feels almost seamless. Yes, it’s uncomfortable at times. Yes, there is some really messed up stuff in the film. The allusions, however,made in the film yield much more weight than what is deemed offensive to the reasonable viewer.

Baron Cohen achieves this in a way that certainly leans on stereotypes as he’s done in the past with characters like Ali G, Brüno Gehard and Admiral General Aladeen. Each of these characters depend on stereotypes they project, but smartly and methodically. Boundaries of what is socially acceptable in some scenarios are pushed, while navigating those scenes sheds light on either the bigotry of those in question or just putting their problematic nature under a scope. Ali G even gave a commencement speech at Harvard in 2004.

Nearly 15 years later, Baron Cohen has brought back one of Kazakhstan’s most beloved journalists in an effort to bring glory back to his home country. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2020) is as timely as it is brilliant, critical and hysterical.

The sequel begins far away from the small village of Glod, Borat Sagdiyev’s hometown. We are met by a raggedy and bearded prisoner laboring in “the gulag” or simply a labor camp that he is bound to for the disgrace that came with the reception of his debut film in Kazakhstan. Soon enough, Borat is released and charged with a mission to return to America and deliver Johnny the monkey, No. 1 celebrity in all of Kazakhstan to Vice President Michael Pence, or as Mr. Sagdiyev describes him: “The Vice pussy-grabber.”

Unfortunately for Johnny, he is eaten by Borat’s daughter who stowed with the monkey on his voyage to the states. Rather than face certain execution upon return to his home country, Borat suggests that his stowaway daughter Tutar is given to Pence in place of the “less alive” Johnny the monkey.

The subsequent film takes a similar approach to its 2006 predecessor, including the mock-documentary style, genuine and unlikely interactions and unmatched social satire. Just one small difference—Borat is widely recognized, so much so that he is chased in the streets by Americans calling his name and demanding photos. In light of this, Sagdiyev must wear disguises in order to avoid any unnecessary attention that would compromise his mission.

This is one of many aspects of the film that makes it truly something unique, even for Baron Cohen. Still under the cameo of Borat, other disguises are made in order to avoid unwanted attention in common situations and in others with higher stakes. One primary example of this is at a Washington gun rights rally. Baron Cohen attended in the guise of “Country Steve,” which is the actor dressed as Borat, who is then dressed as this new cameo. After some time and singing a song that Borat and his conservative quarantine buddies wrote, someone in the crowd recognized Baron Cohen. Many were enraged enough to charge the stage, chasing the actor until he escaped into an ambulance, repeatedly trying to break in as he held the door shut.

It is importantto note that the very misogynistic character Borat is stuck with his daughter, which of course leads to some very awkward and crude encounters at an anti-abortion clinic, a professional babysitter’s home, a ball and more. While it may simply be a byproduct of spending time with one another, Borat undergoes some character development and becomes more or less a father to his daughter. There is no evidence or reason to believe that this has much to do with the success of the film, other than the fact that it just feels right to see the two connect and develop, rather than just remain stagnant as characters. One thing it could imply, however, is that even someone as far gone as Borat Sagdiyev can take steps in the right direction.

The first film undoubtedly makes numerous comments on American politics but doesn’t rely on them for the basis of the plot. This sequel, however, is rooted in its blatant criticism of the U.S., its social climate and American politics. From the start, Vice President Pence is put into the plot to receive Johnny the Monkey as a gift from Kazakhstan to infiltrate the U.S. government and bring back some respect to the then disgraced Kazakhstan, as part of the leaked title “Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premiere Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan,” suggested. Of course, the title was changed or was always—“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” Regardless of either title, it is clear even before viewing the film that it is going to be deeply rooted in political commentary, and rightly so.

One of the most impressionable scenes where Baron Cohen does this is at the 2020 CPAC Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), during which Pence was set to be speaking. Borat of course was concerned he would attract too much attention upon his arrival and be stopped from his mission to deliver Tutar to Pence. Sagdiyev, however, finds an apt disguise (which you’ll either find hilarious or abhorrent) to avoid detection while entering the conference. Quickly changing in the bathroom, Borat slips into another disguise that is just as amicable in this setting. 

Beyond this, Borat goes into what one may consider expected behavior for him as a character, but again with that slight progression that we wouldn’t expect from his 2006 debut. The plan to deliver his daughter to Pence is unsuccessful, but fortunately his new suggestion of gifting Tutar to Rudy Giuliani is accepted by the Kazakhstan government official with whom  Borat is communicating. And as I’m sure you know well by now, that encounter made headlines. Regardless if Giuliani was tucking in his shirt, he’s on camera with his hand down his pants. Doesn’t matter who you are, it isn’t particularly a good look to have.

That isn’t all though. Since the release of the sequel, the once-banned film has been embraced by Kazakhstan, adopting Borat’s signature “Very Nice!” as a slogan for their recent tourism campaign. This is undoubtedly a big leap ahead from 2006, when the film was outlawed and newspaper articles were taken out in the U.S. by the Kazakhstan government to refute some of the statements made in the first film.

On home turf, our commander in chief has also taken notice—but not lightly. The film was released for streaming on Oct. 23, less than two weeks before election day in the U.S. President Donald Trump made comments recalling an interview he had with Baron Cohen as Ali G years ago, in which he claimed to reporters outside of Air Force One that he was trying to scam Trump. “That’s a phony guy. And I don’t find him funny,” he said before boarding.

This year has been a wild ride to say the very least and if anything, this film is emblematic of the times we live in today. We’re all navigating an age of constant floods of information credible and not, deeply rooted division, isolation, injustice, inequality and more to the point that it just feels absurd. American viewers and even those abroad can take this film for what it is and walk away feeling a little better about what is around the corner for us, and that alone makes this film impactful and effective.

“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” is available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

Written by: Cameron Perry — arts@theaggie.org


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