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Review: 'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm' lacks bite, insight of original

Sacha Baron Cohen's surprise sequel to his 2006 smash misses the mark in more ways than one

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In 2006, several political eras and what feels like a thousand cultural iterations ago, "Borat" was ahead of its time. Comic prankster Sacha Baron Cohen took our shores by storm and held a mirror up to us, uncomfortably yet hilariously exposing America's odious underbelly, showing us we had some real work to do if we wanted to live up to our ideals as a country and as a people. It was an eye-opening, gut-busting comedy revolution. 

Fourteen years later its sequel arrives in a vastly different America — the ugliness that was exposed the first time around has firmly risen to the surface — and an altered comic landscape. And those changes don't do any favors to "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," an undercooked sequel that fails to strike a relevant cultural nerve and relies on shock thrills that quickly dissipate.

Sacha Baron Cohen in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm."

Shot in secret and rush-released to streaming before the November election, its biggest trick is that it's here at all; we won't be talking about it a week from now.

Cohen returns as his most famous altar ego, clueless Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, banned from his native Kazakhstan after the success of the first film cast his homeland in a negative light on a global scale.

More: Giuliani shown in hotel bedroom scene in new ‘Borat’ film

After being imprisoned for his humiliation of his country, Borat is freed on the condition he comes to America and delivers a peace offering to "America's most famous ladies man," Vice President Michael Pence, thus redeeming himself and his native land in the eyes of the world. 

This all happens in the first five minutes and is the film's conceit to get Borat back on U.S. soil to do his Borat thing, staging mock interviews and filming unsuspecting subjects who let their guard down and unwillingly expose their underlying biases for Cohen and his cameras.

Borat is joined on his journey by his daughter, 15-year-old Tutar (Maria Bakalova), which allows him to explore sexual and gender politics, but mostly it gives him a new sidekick in lieu of his producer Azamat Bagatov, memorably played by Ken Davitian in the first film. 

Early scenes show Cohen-as-Borat in his familiar beat-up suit being recognized by fans on the streets of Texas; it's a real-life problem when your likeness literally becomes a Halloween costume. The great power of the first film was Cohen/ Borat's unrecognizability, and his position as a supposed foreign journalist allowed people to open up, becoming unknowing participants in his parade of fools. That's not as easy to do after grossing a couple hundred million dollars, so this time around Cohen is forced into goofier costumes and sending up even more clueless marks. 

Which is fine, but the targets here are easy and predictable, softballs for Cohen and his team of seven (!) co-writers. The scenarios feel more staged and outrageous than they did the first time around, and even the film's climactic moment — reviewers were asked not to give away the big reveal — is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Cohen does have some fun at the expense of Donald Trump — a Disney-style cartoon telling the story of First Lady Melania Trump is the source of the movie's best jokes — but mostly "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" feels like a missed opportunity to advance the character and examine our current cultural state. (Tacked on storylines about COVID-19 feel, well, tacked on.) 

Part of the problem is Cohen's recognizability, and part of it is Cohen's gig may be up: Following "Borat," the comedian faced diminishing returns by returning to the same gotcha-style shtick in 2009's "Brüno" and 2018's Showtime series "Who is America," and he swung and missed in the scripted comedies "The Dictator" and "The Brothers Grimsby." (Cohen is currently chasing Oscar bait in Netflix's "The Trial of the Chicago 7," playing political activist Abbie Hoffman.) 

"Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" has fleeting moments of inspiration, but it's overly reliant on cheap provocations, gross-out gags and obvious humor. What began with a bang ends with a whimper. Oh well, the revolution was fun while it lasted. 

'Borat Subsequent Moviefilm'

GRADE: C

Rated R: for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and language

Running time: 96 minutes

On Amazon Prime Video

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama