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Column: Why I’m not laughing at the new ‘Borat’ movie

Sacha Baron Cohen in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm."
(Amazon Studios)

Did you see that part in the new Borat movie where Sacha Baron Cohen’s now-disgraced Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev catches Donald Trump suggesting that it’s OK to kidnap a sitting governor if you’re unhappy with her policies? It’s right between Vice President Mike Pence‘s flouting of CDC coronavirus guidelines and Kim Kardashian’s announcement that she took her entire family to a private island because she needed to “pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time.”

Oh, wait, those events weren’t from Baron Cohen’s political satire “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” — they were actual developments in the news cycle that occurred while everyone was dissecting other, equally alarming moments in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” Like the sight of Rudy Giuliani, unaware that the hotel suite interview he had granted to Borat’s daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova) was a prank. Explaining to Tutar that the Chinese “manufactured” COVID-19 for the express purpose of spreading it around the world, Giuliani first hoists a whiskey then retires to the bedroom where, after having his mike removed, he lies back on the bed and puts his hand down his pants.

Like the woman happily writing, at Borat’s request, “Jews will not replace us” on top of a chocolate cake. Or the antiabortion pastor willing to overlook the apparent incestuous nature of a pregnancy in order to persuade a young woman to bring it to term. Or the dress-shop owner who thinks Borat is just a stitch when he asks for Tutar to be shown “the no means yes” formalwear.

If I were to tell you that a Southern congressman suggested that Kamala Harris endorsed the burning of Irish babies as a replacement for oil and coal, would you think that was from the film or the news?

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Actually, it’s neither — it’s an update to Jonathan Swift’s seminal work of satire, “A Modest Proposal.”

But you had to think for a second, didn’t you? Because the gap between reality and satire that Baron Cohen has so successfully navigated before no longer exists.

‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’ finds everyone’s favorite vulgar Kazakh journalist returning to the U.S. for the first time in over a decade, and things get ... political.

Ever since reality star Donald Trump entered the presidential race, descending from on high via the golden escalator of Trump Tower in June 2015, his campaign and then presidency unapologetically and successfully blurred showmanship with reality. Trump’s ability to normalize behavior that historically would have been considered unconscionable, especially in presidents, left comedians and critics wondering if political satire could survive.

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“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” offers evidence of life, but in a much altered state. Baron Cohen’s comedy, like Trump’s public persona, is fueled by the ever-increasing tension between reality and performance. First in his series “Da Ali G Show” and then in the Borat films, Baron Cohen assumes brazenly outrageous characters to interact with unsuspecting members of the public, in large part to see how far he can go before they either object to the insanity he is spouting or realize they are being pranked.

As with the famous Milgram experiments, in which subjects delivered what they believed were increasing-to-fatal levels of electric shocks to “students” simply because they were instructed to, Baron Cohen was often able to go disturbingly far; the laughter he invariably provoked was often as uncomfortable as it was genuine.

Which is, after all, the point of satire — to bring us to the realization that we are, at least in some way, part of the situation or attitudes being satirized.

The new Borat film is even more overtly political than the first. It revolves around the main character’s mission to give his 15-year-old daughter to a Trump confidante — first he tries Pence, then Giuliani — in order to burnish the global status of Kazakhstan’s fictional president. Much of the humor involves Americans’ apparent acceptance of Borat’s plan and his treatment of his daughter. He purchases a cage in which, he makes clear, she will live; shops with her for a dress that will help her seduce an older man; and takes her to a plastic surgeon for breast implants. Along the way he displays anti-Semitism, xenophobia, reverence for dictators and a willingness to believe that the coronavirus was an invention of the Clintons and the media.

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It is funny, though not in the same way as the first Borat film is funny. Not shockingly funny. A country that mere weeks ago was parsing the Instagram account of Kellyanne Conway’s teenage daughter for a reading on the president’s COVID-19 status — because many felt they had every reason to believe it was either A, much worse than the doctors were letting on or B, completely fake — is not a country easily shocked. The laughter that greets political satire in 2020 is more rueful than revelatory.

“Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen said on “Good Morning America” that he was concerned for actress Maria Bakalova during her scene with Rudy Giuliani.

Indeed, despite its preposterous beats in service of a ludicrous plot, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” was almost immediately greeted as just more grist for the news mill. The Giuliani scene was treated on par with, say, Trump’s huffy behavior during his interview with Lesley Stahl for “60 Minutes”: footage that to one audience offered yet another example of bad behavior from this president while proving to another audience the continued persecution of his administration by “the media” — a term that now somehow includes, on equal footing, a veteran journalist like Stahl and a satiric comedian like Baron Cohen.

Trump subsequently called Baron Cohen “a creep” and Baron Cohen responded on Twitter by offering him a job because, he said, he’s always looking for guys “to play racist buffoons.”

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At any other time, that exchange might itself be a bit of political satire; in the United States circa 2020, it was just another manic Monday.

I am not a huge fan of prank comedy and I like my satire scripted, with all the participants in on the bitter joke. I did not love the first “Borat” movie — the nude wrestling scene is something that, 11 years later, I still cannot unsee. But I certainly admired Baron Cohen’s leveraging the outrageous to reveal scurrying, scuttling bits of destructive truth that provided the film’s real shock value.

Unfortunately, the only shock value in the sequel comes from the fact that there is no shock value. That two men who were kind enough to offer a stranger shelter during the early days of the pandemic — as befalls Borat early in the film — is a pleasant surprise. That the men then proceed matter-of-factly to discuss outlandish QAnon theories is not so pleasant, nor is it surprising, because outlandish QAnon theories are now being discussed by all sorts of people, many of whom appear to be, in other aspects, reasonable and kind.

There’s nothing outrageously funny, or even outrageous, about a group of people waving the American flag while swaying along to a song that suggests journalists, protected by the Constitution the flag represents, should be “chopped up like the Saudis do” — because this is something the president of the United States has suggested pretty much every day for the past four years. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the Giuliani sequence is not that he put his hand down his pants in front of a young woman — to tuck in his shirt or whatever — but that he told someone he believed to be a journalist that the Chinese manufactured COVID-19 to infect the world.

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Members of the Trump administration have been hinting at this for months, but so far no one else has stated it as if it were fact.

“Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm” is well-crafted and at times quite funny in a darkly tragic way. But If Baron Cohen thought he would jolt audiences into self-knowledge by revealing that boastful or oblivious hate, privilege, idiocy and indifference plague this nation, he needn’t have gone to this much trouble.

He could have just logged on to Facebook or Twitter.


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