It has taken Sacha Baron Cohen 14 years to produce a “Borat” sequel. Having seen it, I’m guessing he spent a bunch of that time figuring out how to make a follow-up as bracing as the original.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is, in some ways, similar to the original mockumentary: Cohen plays the clueless Kazakhstani reporter who meanders around the U.S., interacting with Americans to reveal their inconsistencies and prejudices. But, unlike the first movie, this one is a satisfying narrative, not a collection of skits. “Subsequent Moviefilm” has a beginning, middle and a brilliant ending that involves one of America’s most beloved people in a way that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.
Borat’s disguises are familiar, including more time in the dreaded mankini, but he still has the power to challenge our preconceptions. “Subsequent Moviefilm” reaches a kind of outrageous peak in a pair of sequences that force us to keep about five competing ideas in our heads at once. Borat, who’s a Holocaust denier, wanders into a synagogue, planning to wait for some crazed bigot to shoot it up. While we’re grappling with the horrifying truth of that joke, he encounters elderly Judith Dim Evans, who calmly informs him she’s a Holocaust survivor. Then, she envelops him in a big hug (the movie is dedicated to Evans, who died recently and whose family has taken issue with her appearance).
So we find out “Subsequent Moviefilm” can bring a tear to our eyes, even though Borat spends the entire movie trying to gift his adolescent daughter Tutar (billed as Irina Nowak, the actor actually seems to be Maria Bakalova) to Vice President Mike Pence. After the synagogue, Borat encounters a stranger outside a bar and, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, asks for a place to stay. Which the kindhearted man gives him. Right before we find out he’s a QAnon adherent. And maybe gay?
The movie is constantly flipping us back and forth. “Subsequent Moviefilm” hints that if we examine our own beliefs alongside those of our “opponents,” we’ll find common ground. And it challenges us to recognize that, wherever we stand on the political spectrum (Cohen, who disrupts a Pence speech and stages an interview with a leering Rudy Giuliani, is clearly no fan of the current administration), the views of others are just as complicated as our own. Or as complicated as an unsettling sequence at a debutante ball where Tutar and Borat perform a synchronized number that quickly turns disgusting. Yes, the dads and daughters at the anachronistic ball seem stuffy and weird, but do they deserve to have their big dumb event ruined in the way the film does?
And who, exactly, is privy to the staging of these stunts? When Tutar explains that she’s looking for a sugar daddy and an “influencer” named “Macey Chanel” advises, “You want someone who has had a heart attack,” is it really possible that Chanel isn’t in on the joke? There’s so much going on in “Subsequent Moviefilm,” a good deal of it offensive, that it’s impossible to stop trying to figure out what you make of it. Some people won’t enjoy the cognitive dissonance but I found it exhilarating.
Cohen and director Jason Woliner give our brains some safe spaces to land. Pretty much everyone can agree on the merits of a plastic surgeon who evaluates young Tutar’s nose and breasts before coming on to her, and on a sweet day-care manager named Jeanise Jones who listens to Borat’s account of his wild travels and replies with plain-spoken wisdom, “It should make your heart hurt.”
The humor in “Subsequent Moviefilm” may not land quite as hard as in “Borat” and a couple sequences fall flat. But, as it becomes clear that Borat and Tutar are both on a bizarro consciousness-raising journey in a country that is searching for its own conscience, the sequel achieves something “Borat” didn’t: It makes your heart hurt.