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Culture

‘Borat 2’ is a riot, but slandering a nation’s history goes too far

Borat was never a victimless enterprise.

In “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America,” the Kazakh journalist invited an RV full of frat brothers to reminisce about the days of slavery (they needed zero prompting, save for their companion’s foreign, sympathetic presence).

More troublingly, a kindly Jewish couple operating a kosher bed and breakfast provided the venue for Borat’s antisemitic nightmare, in which he believed his hosts had shape-shifted into a swarm of cockroaches; (they didn’t care for the joke).

14 years have passed since Sacha Baron Cohen first brought the character to the big screen, and in the interim he has refined a sometimes stolid social consciousness. His philosopher-clown status, buttressed by his ADL keynote nearly a year ago and his recent turn as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, has made him a bit more discerning — or perhaps just more ambitious — when it comes to his targets. But there are still gaps in sensitivity, and not all victims are made equal. Those who lay out prejudices gratis are always the better sort, those that need some goading fall flatter and those that have an unfair narrative imposed on them deserve better.

I never thought that targeting an oppressive regime like Kazakhstan would seem unfair.

Enter “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (phew) out Friday on Amazon. As with Baron Cohen, things have changed for Borat. Where the former found adulation and serious dramatic roles coming off of the 2006 surprise hit, the latter has been punished by his government for bringing dishonor his homeland with the film, the infamy of which caused “Potassium and pubis exports” to plummet.

But the Ministry of Culture has one more job for the disgraced journalist: a last-ditch effort to reclaim Kazakhstan’s standing with “Premier McDonald Trump.” Borat must bribe Mike Pence; the bribe is Borat’s stowaway daughter, Tutar (newcomer and comedic revelation Maria Bakalova).

Like the first film, “Borat 2” is a road movie, this time documenting a different stage of American decline. The addition of Tutar, the film’s beating heart, gives Borat an accomplice and an easy vehicle for examining American misogyny — and far worse.

When Tutar arrives in a large shipping crate, Borat is able to tip a trucker to nail her back inside. A UPS store worker, dutifully faxing messages to the president of Kazakhstan, seems untroubled when the conversation turns to gifting Borat’s teenage daughter to an old American man. A farm supply employee helps Borat find a cage for Tutar (and advises him on the proper propane saturation to kill “Gypsies”). In the American South, where father and daughter make landfall, they have no trouble finding folks to aid in what is clearly human trafficking.

Unlike its predecessor, this “Borat” leans less on shock value and succeeds in storytelling, solid gags and a more arresting character arc for Borat and his charge in their “Paper Moon”-like tour of the country. The view of American ills is panoramic. QAnon conspiracy theorists seem to emerge organically, and become major supporting characters. A Republican women’s group plays a key role in Tutar’s evolution. But Baron Cohen’s pet cause of exposing antisemitism provides a subtle undercurrent and controversial set piece.

As in the first film, where we heard frat bros claim Jews are privileged for being “against the mainstream,” the American strain of casual Jew hatred presents itself. It never feels didactic here, though it often feels teed up.

A woman at a bakery willingly ices a cake with the words “Jews will not replace us” and a plastic surgeon reassures Tutar she doesn’t have a Jewish nose, by drawing an outline of what he thinks a Jewish nose looks like, but it’s only through suggestion that these people get themselves into trouble.

Late in the game, Baron Cohen introduces his concern about Holocaust denial on Facebook. Borat is shattered when Tutar discovers a page claiming that the Shoah — described as Kazakhstan’s “proudest moment” (more on this later) — was a hoax. This revelation leads to a tender, if simultaneously problematic, meeting with a Holocaust survivor at a local synagogue, where he’s jubilantly convinced of the event’s historicity. (The survivor’s estate is suing; the “Borat” team claiming she was apprised of the film’s content after the scene was filmed.)

Here the film goes too far. It’s not the involvement of the survivor — surely among the most likeable people in Borat and Tutar’s admittedly uproarious odyssey — but the real nation of Kazakhstan (not Baron Cohen’s imagined one), that should rightly take issue with the film’s pivotal assertion of Holocaust complicity.

In the early minutes of the film, Borat says that a major tourist draw to his country is “Holocaust Remembrance Day, where we commemorate our heroic soldiers who ran the camps.” That claim is patently false. Implicating Kazakhs is the sort of distortion that Baron Cohen, in his out-of-character capacity, denounces. (There were gulags — and they were terrible — but Kazakh soldiers were not a party to Nazi concentration camps.)

It’s a particularly insulting premise given Kazakhstan’s history of heroism on the other side of the war, during which time it served as a haven for Jewish refugees. Even today, many Kazakhs are currently involved in activism on behalf of Uighur Muslims in China.

So while Rudy Giuliani may grouse that he was deceptively edited in the movie during a scene with Tutar, at the end of the day it isn’t the film’s view of America that’s skewed.

There’s little here that can shock any American who’s paying attention, even as it impressively bundles so many of our problems into a straightforward, at times uplifting, narrative with a hilarious, head-spinning, final twist.

In the end it’s a hopeful product — for Kazakhstan and the greater developing world — and a jig on the grave of American exceptionalism. Borat grows where we are stunted and enlightenment is derived from our deficits.

But that breakdown gives too little credit to countries like Kazakhstan whose citizens are pitching their own battles with human rights abuses and authoritarianism. While Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner’s America is a found object, their imagined Central Asian state — always serving as a backwards benchmark — is contrived in a way that undermines their justified critiques of both nations.

Concerns over fabricating Kazakh reality are nothing new for “Borat,” but they hit differently given Baron Cohen’s new status at the head of a just cause calling for a crackdown on misinformation. The court jester or the wise fool has his place, but he must speak truth to a present power, and not defame a noble past.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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