This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Mike Apps🍿’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Sacha Baron Cohen and the world he's built a career satirizing are in a weird place right now. His fictional personas are ingrained in pop culture; instantly recognizable and memeable. Cohen is compelled to rebrand and re-strategize what he does best - using cringe to explore the darker recesses of society.
So what does Cohen do in a zeitgeist where punkin people with cringe has lost its touch; where everyone is on a smartphone with the world in their palms; where social media incentivizes polarizing and incendiary content; where the very fringe ideas Cohen made us laugh at from a safe distance now creeps up to the mainstream; where world leaders have been revealed as clueless bureaucrats in a failure to curb an ongoing pandemic.......he makes Borat 2!
So first off I'll say this sequel is nowhere near as funny or shocking as the first one in my opinion. That element of surprise just isn't here. If you were there in 2006, then you know how Borat 1 was a decade-defining moment; there was an unpredictability to its absurdity as it caught us off guard. This sequel doesn't have the same luxury. Watching it, I got distracted thinking "What did Cohen and his crew tell these civilians because they seem to be getting on with the act too conveniently?". Either the exchanges with random citizens felt weirdly scripted, or we're just more attuned to Cohen's "gotcha" foreigner schtick.
The breakout star Maria Bakalova as Borat's daughter Tutar was initially a hard sell for me. I understood Cohen couldn't and didn't want to retread the producer from the first one (he has literally been turned into a chair and that really made me laugh), so he invents a daughter as a partner in crime. Cohen sheds light on the patriarchal grip on women's autonomy (there's a brilliant running commentary on women's upward mobility in patriarchal fairytales which makes Tutar a great subversion of Cinderella). Indeed, Borat 2 works best when its the two of them juxtaposing their so-called backwards culture with the average Americans to reveal how not so dissimilar both are. When it's just the two of them alone in their personal melodrama, it drags the whole thing to a halt. Bakalova does hold her own with Cohen; she has great comedic timing and was believable as Tutar throughout the film. The bit with Tutar and Jeanise Jones is clearly the heart of Borat 2, while everyone else is casually antisemitic or indifferent to antisemitism.
In addition, Borat hanging out with the QAnon Democrat haters wasn't as judgmental as it could have been - in spite of their misguided politics, they let in a foreigner into their homes and let him stay comfortably without being hostile towards him. They might wish for Democrats to have lesser rights, but they're surprisingly progressive when it comes to women's rights. It's these bits of nuanced humanity that make Borat 2 so worthwhile.
However, one of the worst scenes is where Borat interrupts a Mike Pence conference in a Donald Trump mask - it's just awkward and doesn't illuminate any fresh perspective, which is a lot of Borat 2 unfortunately! Again, the first one felt like a proper mockumentary that was following the story as it went. It was aimless and random, which is why the humour was so unexpected without an obvious setup. You didn't even know if Borat would get to meet Pam Anderson. With the sequel, it felt more like a movie with actual character development (Tutar coming out of her literal and figurative cage) and stakes (Borat has to establish contact with the Trump administration or else he will be "execute"). As a result, Borat 2 sets you up for an A-to-Z expectation, letting you know that this is all going somewhere. So if you already know how absurd Trumpland is, your expectations of something revelatory are not gonna be met. Even if you went into Borat 2 with no idea of the infamous Rudy Giuliani scene, it's pretty apparent to anyone not living under a rock that Rudy is a perv. How did that scene reveal anything worthwhile beyond a giggle?!
Borat 1 was the illusion of a mission, Borat 2 was an actual mission. Sacha Baron Cohen has always been political, but his early stuff had a "passive observer" quality to it. By the 2010's, he was doing more interviews and acceptance speeches in his ordinary voice. You can tell that the 2016 election really affected Cohen. So in a weird way, Borat's humour and critical eye feels more relevant now.
I could see this as a great introduction to Cohen for a newer era of audiences. I like to think of it as the best modern fairytale since Phantom Thread - a twisted fairytale where a king from an impoverished country attempts to wed his princess to the prince charming of the First World!