Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ★★

The popular idea that comedy needs to “punch up” is too simplistic. It’s not always easy to figure out who has real power – the small army of cis male comics who think transphobia is the height of free thought are rather confused about it – or how to use humor to criticize Karens roaming Wal-Mart screaming at anyone with a mask on or empty female Instagram influencers without buying into sexist attitudes. (Look at how badly jokes about Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera from the early 2000s have aged, but how much consensus there was at the time that female pop singers must be talentless idiots.) Sacha Baron Cohen’s sense of humor has punched up, down and sideways. But while his depiction of Kazakhstan in BORAT offended plenty of people, he obviously intended to use the backwardness of the caricatured Eastern Europe he created (and which he probably should’ve given a fictional name) to point out that American culture isn’t nearly as liberated as Americans like to think it is. The problem with Cohen’s act is that when he made DA ALI G SHOW and BORAT, it was still shocking that he could get a room full of people to sing along to a song called “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” There’s a similar scene in BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM, but it’s hardly news that an audience of rednecks openly toting AR-15s and wearing pro-Trump merch would sing along as Cohen performs a song that declares “Corona is a liberal hoax” and then threatens to injects Fauci, Obama and journalists with the “Chinese flu.” Yes, Cohen is pointing out that they accept whopping contradictions, but anything goes to own the libs.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM isn’t a disaster, but it feels like outtakes from his Showtime series hastily formed into a narrative film. (Borat’s frequent recourse to wigs, fake beards and fat suits only enhances the resemblance.) This time, Borat travels across America with his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who starts rebelling against his misogyny. In addition to mocking Trumpist politics, BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM takes aim at a sexist American culture of sugar babies, father-daughter balls and “pregnancy crisis centers” run by ministers talking women out of getting abortions. But it wouldn’t be a Cohen project without huge contradictions, and it gets a lot of pleasure out of the misogyny it depicts, in ways that sometimes feel more like laughing with it than laughing at it. It’s funniest when Tatar disrupts staid proceedings by showing off her period blood or singing the praises of masturbation. But most of the film is badly staged. (Eight screenwriters worked on it.) When Borat orders a chocolate cake with icing that reads “Jews will not replace us,” it makes one wonder “How much did the producers pay off the baker to do this on camera?” rather than "Holy shit, America isn’t even hiding its antisemitism anymore.” The reliance on non-actors unconvincingly participating in fake scenarios, like Borat talking with a Holocaust survivor at a synagogue, doesn’t help. Its final 10 minutes suggests that Cohen really did think about the criticism BORAT received about its portrayal of Kazakhstan, as well as the way the U.S. has become an international pariah under Trump and COVID, and came up with some good jokes, if not a profound political statement.

Steve Erickson liked these reviews