Fat suits stink. The thought of heavy, oversized layers of latex covering an inevitably sweaty person for hours on end is a stifling one, and Sacha Baron Cohen donning a 56-inch fat suit (the largest he could find) in order to impersonate American President Donald Trump at a Republican convention demonstrates what an artist can do for art. Trying to smuggle his faux fleshiness past metal detectors, Baron Cohen claimed to have a pacemaker. It worked, though I find it incredible nobody smelt him out. Perhaps it isn’t polite to sniff the leader of the free world.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, out now on Amazon Prime Video, is without question one of the most provocative films of all time. Baron Cohen, a 49-year-old Cambridge-educated British actor, revives his Kazakh character, Borat Sagdiyev, who gave us the fantastic 2006 satire Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan. That film, directed by Seinfeld writer Larry Charles, remains a work of groundbreaking genius, where a ridiculously backward journalist tries to imbibe America’s culture and ends up exposing its prejudice—all while falling in love with Baywatch star Pamela Anderson.
A zealous and woefully inaccurate journalist, Borat thrives on misinformation. From his stunted portrayal of Kazakhstan and its incestuous, anti-Semitic ways (Baron Cohen is Jewish) to his many disguises and outlandish stunts, everything is a ruse designed to trick onlookers into revealing their own hate and apathy. The camera is candid, and the joke is on the bigots on the street as well as the ones watching. He used to be the world’s fakest newsman. Now the world—and its news—has caught up.
Prejudice is worn on sleeves, and baseball caps. Our biases, sexism and bigotry aren’t anonymous. Neither—in the new film—is Borat. In America on a new mission (to gift a celebrity ape to US vice-president Mike Pence), he is stopped on the street by fans offering money for autographs. Thanks to the movie and the memes, he is now a celebrity, one who walks into a costume shop for a disguise and finds his own outfit: an obvious Borat costume which, for copyright-dodging reasons, can’t call itself that.
Thus new costumes are worn over his Borat outfit, including Ku Klux Klan robes and the presidential fat suit. He is accompanied by his daughter, 15-year-old Tutar, a feral teenager raised like a barnyard animal, brought up on old-school cartoons depicting US First Lady Melania Trump as the ultimate princess. Tutar, played by explosive (and thankfully 24-year-old) Bulgarian actor Maria Bakalova, suffers from “a disease called curiosity” and gets the scenes that will invariably be the most discussed. I refuse to spoil them. Just brace yourself, and don’t watch this film while you eat.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is not as savagely funny as the original. It is plain savage, with wit making way for shock as Baron Cohen and gang point out how appalling things have become. Yet as Borat nudges a genial bakery owner into an actual hate crime (complete with smiley-faces), and as a plastic-surgeon leers over Tutar, it is clear this film may be more essential, more revelatory than the first.
Borat discovers, from Facebook—“a book that only tells the truth”—that the Holocaust never happened. As a proud anti-Semite, he is crushed. He heads to a synagogue dressed to mock the Jewish stereotype: wearing a grotesquely long nose, and carrying a string puppet labelled “Media”. Here he meets a lady called Judith Dim Evans, who treats him with kindness and empathy, winning even Borat over. The film is dedicated to her.
Baron Cohen is an extraordinary talent. He will likely get nominated for an Academy Award this year for his sensational performance in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 (Netflix). In his amazing 2018 series Who Is America?, he casually tried to get O.J. Simpson to confess he murdered his wife. He is an electrifying, surprising performer with an irregular, unconventional charisma. A few years ago, he was slated to play Freddie Mercury before the remaining members of Queen, afraid of being upstaged, capsized the project. Regardless, he hoists the microphone in his own troublemaking way, comedically and pointedly exhorting us to break free.
To me, Baron Cohen’s most astounding feat in the new film involved living in character for five days, quarantined with two right-wing conspiracy theorists who co-wrote a song Borat performs at a rally, a song that hopes to inject former US president Barack Obama “with the Wuhan flu”. Their theories are too daft to be effectively toxic. They don’t know Borat, but are hospitable to a stranger they believe needs help. They go out of their way, during a pandemic, to try and reunite him with his daughter. With our discourse poisoned and polarised—and neither side willing to talk to the other—here is a stunning example of how that “otherness” may be exaggerated, with good people falling prey to alarmingly powerful propaganda.
For America, this is a massive film in election season. Fifteen years ago, Borat made a profound statement about his singular obsession with Pamela Anderson: “When you chase a dream, especially one with plastic chests, you sometimes do not see what is right in front of you.” It is a peculiar warning that applies even to the people we elect to run our countries. We must scrutinise—and smell out—leaders so unfit that dressing up as them requires 56 inches of padding.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.