Cohen “retired” Borat in 2007, saying that his disguise-driven ‘incognito” brand of satire had become impossible due to his own fame and the instantaneous, identity-checking ability of search engines. And yet here he is fourteen years later, releasing a follow-up that was shot (mostly) under the radar during a pandemic. Some early scenes account for Cohen’s inability to work incognito in public: Borat, aka Cohen-in-character, gets recognized by random pedestrians, but their chasing and pestering him for autographs is chalked up to Borat’s infamy.
This launches a gallery of disguises that are like something Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau would’ve worn to fool the bad guys, only to arouse a different sort of suspicion. There’s a Soggy Bottom Boys-looking “redneck” outfit with long hair and a beard; a Donald Trump disguise that involves a fat suit and a “Mission: Impossible”-caliber face mask and hairpiece; and a “Jew” costume (drawing on Borat’s own country’s history of antisemitism) with bat wings, talons, and a Pinocchio schnoz.
As you’ve gathered (“gathered”—like you’d be reading this if you weren’t already a Borat fan!) much of the humor is deliberately provocative/offensive/filthy, and while the script has a theoretically progressive agenda (as in Cohen’s TV series, and the last Borat film, the hero’s misadventures are meant to expose latent American bigotry, depravity, bloodlust, and authoritarianism), the result risks accusations that the creators are trying to eat their cake and have it, too. Is Cohen wallowing in bigotry and ignorance by giving it so much screen time, even though he’s putting ironic quote-marks around Borat’s in-character “agreement” with much of it? And is he inadvertently creating YouTube clips and memes that bigots can strip of irony and self-awareness, and fold into the same old rancid propaganda? How responsible is Cohen for unintended consequences?
These are the conundrums faced by comics who incarnate a phenomenon that they want to critique. Some (like Andrew Dice Clay in the nineties) get swallowed up by it, to the point where they become advertisements for the thing they originally wanted to critique. That’s not the case here. But Cohen’s always on the edge and sometimes tips over (more so in “Bruno,” an often homophobic expose of homophobia).
On top of all of the movie’s theoretical/political aspects, something more conventional is going on. Although much of the movie is goofy, surreal and scathing, all of the sections that concentrate on Borat’s relationship with Tutar are weirdly heartwarming. It’s that Will Ferrell kind of heartwarming, where the script is making fun of the idea of “heartwarming” while still being heartwarming. Imagine the classic road film “Paper Moon,” but with the father and daughter replaced by sketch-comedy degenerates.
It’s fun to see contrary storytelling impulses layered on top of each other, even when (or perhaps because) it’s often hard to tell how much you’re supposed to accept at face value, and how much is a put-on. But even as Borat and Tutar become (comparatively) enlightened about culturally ingrained sexism in Kazakhstan and America, the movie anchors every element to a unifying idea: we think we’re making fun of the view through a window, but it’s a mirror.