In a recent speech at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Sacha Baron Cohen stopped being funny and went on a rant about Facebook. The whole thing is worth reading, but I think about this part a lot:
On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.
When I, as the wannabe gangsta Ali G, asked the astronaut Buzz Aldrin “what woz it like to walk on de sun?” the joke worked, because we, the audience, shared the same facts. If you believe the moon landing was a hoax, the joke was not funny.
What is weirdly refreshing about Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the sequel to 2006’s Borat, is that Cohen is able to find spaces where shared facts still matter. Put another away, this year is not so numbing and awful that Kazakhstan’s fourth best journalist had no effect on me. Parts of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm are puerile and outrageous, and while Cohen creates a sense of madcap chaos, he is careful and fluid in who he satirizes. Not all the jokes stick the landing, yet this film – in a roundabout way – is about a need for collective decency.
Since we were once saturated by unfunny people going “my wife” and “very nice,” it is surprising how easily Cohen plunges us back into the bizarre mindset of his hero. Having embarrassed Kazakhstan with Borat, he comes back to the United States on a diplomatic mission. This time he has some unexpected cargo: his teenage daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who aspires to be the next Melania Trump. Bakalova is the secret weapon in Subsequent Moviefilm: she leans harder into the pranks, without even a hint of self-awareness. Together they satirize targets big and small, including a bizarre scene where they crash CPAC.
Some targets do not take the bait. There is a scene where Borat leaves Tutar with a babysitter, complete with a literal ball and chain, and the babysitter is a concerned bystander who tries to help. Borat ends up living with some good ol’ boys, and while they spew conspiracy theories, they also speak about equality with more sophistication than you might expect. What ultimately emerges is a sense of where basic facts start and end. When Borat takes Tutar to a debutante ball, it culminates in a hilarious, shocking display of vulgarity. But what is also important is a throwaway line where one of the young debutantes chastises her father about what she witnesses.
Since I begin with a Cohen quote at the ADL, I should mention how Subsequent Moviefilm handles anti-Semitism. Unlike the staff at a Crisis Pregnancy Center (who are viciously mocked), Cohen turns the target on himself. It is a bizarre reversal: Borat stumbles on a Holocaust denial Facebook page, and this leads him to a synagogue, a bizarre scene where he speaks with an elderly, patient Jewish woman. She does not disabuse Borat of anti-Semitic stereotypes, exactly, although Cohen mocks his boorish creation until, again, we have a baseline of humanity. Conspiracy nuts and anti-Semites are not the target audience, and yet these scenes have a greater sense of purpose. It is like a funhouse mirror: Borat’s exaggeration forces us to remember what we are really like.
Shared decency does not mean that Cohen has gone soft. The political world was stunned when The Guardian reported a scene in Subsequent Moviefilm involving Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Regardless of how much Giuliani understood and when, the encounter strips him of his power, leaving a horny drunk dupe who can barely string a sentence together. Aside from the shock, the political implications are staggering: the film is distributed on Amazon, a company owned by Trump’s enemy Jeff Bezos, so maybe there were was some high stakes editorializing at play. Either way, after the Giuliani scene ended, my wife and I turned to each other and asked, “This has to be a big deal, right?”
It was. Basic facts prevailed, along with an earned (albeit bizarre) sense of hope.