In 2003, provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen — then in the guise of rapper Ali G — interviewed Donald Trump. The celebrity real estate developer quickly walked out. You couldn’t — to put it politely — kid a kidder. Seventeen years later, Trump is out of reach even for a berserker like Baron Cohen. Nonetheless, in the madcap travelogue sequel Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, he returns to circle his old prey. The US president does not appear, but is everywhere in spirit. Starring in the flesh — and then some — is his lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Hold that thought.
If fans were worried about burgeoning good taste in the Borat of the original 2006 misadventure, they shouldn’t be. In the guise of his naive Kazakh reporter, Baron Cohen still tramples over sensitivities with the glee of a toddler loosed on the flowerbeds. But there is a problem. If the first film was built on unwitting play-alongs, now whenever Borat appears in public, Baron Cohen is met by real-life demands for autographs. The solution comes with the same premise that returns him to America. Delighted by the political mood in the US, the Kazakh president would like to formalise a union. Borat must make an appropriate gift: offering Mike Pence his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar.
As I said, Baron Cohen is still willing to Go There. Tutar is played by the previously unknown Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. A star is assuredly born. An accomplice for Baron Cohen too. How much of the gonzo feminism of the film was always the plan and how much born from the need for another — less famous — face to prank America is moot. With Baron Cohen, you often need to hold two competing thoughts in your head at once.
Either way, Bakalova means business. Sometimes, the pair work as a double act, as when visiting a cosmetic surgeon who assures the young woman he is angling to give breast implants that he would gladly “sex attack” her if her father were not present. But soon Tutar is on her own, speaking to a Republican women’s group on what might be called matters of physical self-discovery. Whatever your politics, the effect is thrilling, Bakalova as nerveless as her co-star in drawing out condescension, then turning it to horrified, disbelieving silence. Encore!
Where does this leave the actual Borat? Sometimes Baron Cohen seems to be working up a thesis, gesturing to threads between fictional, omni-bigoted Kazakh superstitions and America’s genuine anti-science, QAnon baloney. But the rigour is mostly saved for real-world interventions such as the comedian’s celebrated 2019 speech on Facebook and Holocaust denial. With Borat, he is always keen to get to the next slapstick confrontation. Some are as hilarious as ever, others less so.
Still, we are all judged by our endings and the film has a doozy — a gleaming glacé cherry of humiliation in clown-nose red, starring Giuliani. By now Tutar has transitioned into an anti-lockdown pseudo-journalist, interviewing the onetime New York mayor as he holds forth on Chinese villainy and Trumpian heroics. To describe what follows in the hotel suite would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, it feels at once inevitable and still remarkable to see on screen. Bakalova, like Baron Cohen, is expert at Going There. Giuliani, having gone along, should probably now stay put.
On Amazon Prime Video from October 23
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