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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen's movie "Borat" was an unlikely blockbuster. It starred Cohen as a fictional reporter from Kazakhstan who journeys across the U.S. and interacts with Americans who don't know they're part of a comedy. "Borat" made hundreds of millions of dollars. It spawned catchphrases which I will not attempt to duplicate here and became a pop culture phenomenon.
Now, 14 years later, that unlikely blockbuster has an equally unlikely sequel. The new movie grabbed headlines last week because of a controversial scene involving President Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani. But is the film itself any good? I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are unpacking "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us from his home in Alexandria, Va., is Ronald Young Jr. Ronald is a film and TV critic, as well as the host of the podcast "Leaving The Theater."
RONALD YOUNG JR: Hello. Thanks for having me.
THOMPSON: It's great to have you. Also with us from her home in Brooklyn is Daisy Rosario. She's an executive producer at Stitcher with the show called "All-American: Tiger Woods." It's in its first season right now. Hey, Daisy.
DAISY ROSARIO: Hey, Stephen. Happy to be here.
THOMPSON: Oh, it's great to have you.
So to get everyone caught up on the Borat Cinematic Universe, "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" was filmed this year and released last Friday on Amazon Prime. It's set 14 years after the original. Long story short, Borat is sent back to the U.S. on a mission to bribe Vice President Mike Pence with the gift of Borat's teenage daughter, Tutar, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. In fact, the full title of this movie is "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery Of Prodigious Bribe To American Regime To Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan."
So there's a scene in this movie that everyone's talking about with Rudy Giuliani. He is being interviewed by Borat's daughter, Tutar, who is playing a TV reporter. She's interviewing him. She's kind of flirting with him. He's kind of playing off that. And then it kind of cuts abruptly to a scene in a hotel bedroom where she's helping him remove a microphone, and his shirt's untucked and he has his hands down his pants. It moves very quickly. He has said that the scene is entirely fabricated. It is, if nothing else, a very uncomfortable scene.
There is a lot to unpack here, but let's start by going around the table. What did y'all think? Daisy, I'm going to start with you.
ROSARIO: So I thought it was fine at times and too late at other times. And I know we'll get into the details. But early on, there were parts that I was like, oh, this is interesting and also maybe somewhat unexpected because the Giuliani stuff had gotten so much attention to start. So there were parts where they were talking to groups where I was like, oh, that's an interesting way to go about this. And then there are also parts where, you know, you are like, this part seems really staged or this part seems overproduced or, you know, how are they going with this?
And then there are parts where, you know, even post- the Giuliani scene where the characters are talking to each other in character, and it's almost jarring because you're so aware of the ruse in a way that, like, in 2006, you know, people didn't really know much about Sacha Baron Cohen. I was an "Ali G" fan, so, like, I was aware. But there was, like, a newness to it. And then there was a confusion to me mentally of, like, guys, I mean, I know what you're doing at this point. It's weird sometimes where you're just talking to each other in character for five minutes in a way that wasn't necessarily weird in the first film.
And so it just - I asked some friends without telling anyone what I thought about it, like, what did they think, and some thought it was, like, really funny. And some thought it was, like, why is this even happening? And I feel like I really genuinely experienced both, depending on what 10 minutes of the movie I was in.
THOMPSON: Gotcha. All right, how about you, Ronald?
YOUNG: OK, so I did not like this movie.
YOUNG: And I want to state my credentials before I say why I didn't like this movie. I watched "Borat" in 2006 when it came out in theaters. I was in college. I was the target demographic. I went with a group of friends. I was very, very excited to see this movie. I thought it was hilarious. I bought it on DVD. I still own it. It's in my house. So I loved this movie.
In preparation for watching this one, I watched the old one. I watched it earlier last week, and I did not laugh one time. I sat there watching. I was like, what is this that I'm watching right now? I was like, why did I like this? What is going on?
And I realized the thing that I didn't like about this and that I also didn't like about "Borat 2" was something that Daisy just touched on, which is the burden of plot, like the burden of actually having to have a plot-driven movie where you guys are inserting things where these are two fictional characters that we all know are fictional are talking about things that they're going to go through in the real world. I'm like, who are y'all fooling? You're not fooling me. So here's the audience here that you're trying to fool. And I'm like, so, yeah, 2006 Ronald, which is 14 years ago - I guess that makes sense. But watching this now, it just - I didn't really understand what exactly it was I was engaging with.
And then it made me think that Sacha Baron Cohen is also doing "Who Is America?" So I'm like, "Who Is America?" fits this moment in 2020 a lot better because you're doing just little vignettes. You're getting people on one-offs. You're getting them in little interviews and then they're walking away. But to do a feature-length film of pranks and to try to, like, loosely stitch it together with subpar plot, it wasn't for me.
THOMPSON: Gotcha. Well, you know, I actually did the opposite thing that you did, Ronald. Like you, I saw "Borat" in the theater in 2006 and then didn't really think about it much outside of memes in the 14 years since. With this movie, I watched the sequel first and then went back and rewatched the first "Borat" for the first time in 14 years.
I was really struck watching the new movie by the burden of familiarity. Not only are we, the audience, familiar with Borat and kind of what Borat is all about, but the people in the world he's occupying are familiar with Borat. And so the movie has to pivot off of that in ways that I think don't always work. They wind up having to put him in these absurd costumes. Often, the weight of the pranks is actually on Maria Bakalova as his daughter...
THOMPSON: ...You know, where they've got scenes where she is kind of doing "Borat" so people aren't as thrown off by the familiarity of the character. And I think that familiarity throws this movie off, slows it down a little bit and makes it not work as well, even though I think Maria Bakalova is very, very funny. I think she is a terrific find for this movie. But the movie itself didn't hang together as well, in part because Borat himself is in these ridiculous get-ups. And so that's where the fakiness of the interaction between these fictional characters and the real world really drags it down is, like, he's in pancake makeup and fake noses. And it's so obvious to the world around him that something is amiss beyond this guy is acting unexpectedly.
YOUNG: To that point, that's one thing that I struggled with, was watching this and watching him being disguised as Borat. So I'm like, are we watching Sacha Baron Cohen being disguised as Borat being disguised as another person? And so then when he would talk and do accents, I was like, are we watching Borat trying to do an American accent, or am I watching Sacha Baron Cohen trying to do a Southern accent, which I know he does very well? So I'm like, my mind had to know, like, two different things in order to process this character in front of my face.
ROSARIO: I haven't rewatched the original "Borat," but I feel like even the way I remember it is a little more cohesive in what felt like, at least, overall goals in terms of, like, hey, there's actually a lot of, like, racism and weird stuff just under the surface. Like, you don't understand how close to the surface this stuff actually is. I feel like that was the big takeaway in general from the first "Borat," besides, my wife, and all of that.
I had to do it. I'm sorry. Somebody had to do one. I took that one for the team.
But this one, it's like it feels so all over the place. And then even more than usual, it depends on what you are coming in knowing because there are things like the crisis pregnancy center, which is something that I think is really interesting. And that moment kind of works for me and is not necessarily something that is as top of mind. But then you also get to these parts with conspiracy theorists that is also like, well, maybe a year ago, this part would have been more interesting, but it feels like the level of that has permeated American society enough that, like, that is actually something that even the average person is seeing play out in their life.
And so it feels both, like, a year behind and then, you know, again, on, like, crisis pregnancy center moment is, like, compelling, and then these other moments that feel overly staged. So there's just a lot happening. And it feels like Sacha Baron Cohen looked in the closet and was like, I have this weird, you know, yellow thong outfit I used to wear. People liked that character, and I'm going to pull him out again. And I don't know that I needed him to pull it out again. But there are these moments, like I said, but the sum of its parts is much worse than the parts themselves (laughter).
YOUNG: I think the moment in 2006 and the moment in 2020 is exactly what you're getting at, Daisy, which is that now satire is so close to reality now.
YOUNG: And, Stephen, I know you used to work at The Onion, and I thought about this with The Onion.
YOUNG: I'm like, you know how you read an Onion headline now and you're like, that's almost true?
YOUNG: That's just - that's not satire anymore.
ROSARIO: Right. Exactly.
YOUNG: That's almost true 'cause, normally, in 2006, the whole catch was like, Borat goes out and he spouts his reprehensible views. And people either break and just be like, oh, that's - ugh. And they get so upset with them that they shut down the interview. Or they lean into it, and it's about their own reprehensible views.
YOUNG: So to watch the 2006 "Borat" this year and see people say, like, reprehensible things or horrible things, it was just like, wow, that is shocking. But even when I watch that in 2020 and then watch the new one, I was just like, that was on CNN last week. That was on Fox News.
YOUNG: Like, that's in the White House, wherever.
YOUNG: These types of views are not things that are nearly as shocking as they were once upon a time. So it's like, where is the line of satire? And then what is the greater thing you're trying to accomplish here when you're jumping all over the place? Is this movie about feminism? Is this a movie about authoritarian governments? Like, what is this actually a movie about? And it seems like they just jumped everywhere and tried to touch all of them, when I think 2006 felt more singularly focused.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the perils of doing satire is that the world around you eventually catches up and...
THOMPSON: ...Either becomes wilder than the satire or becomes very aware of that satire. And The Onion, I think, has certainly found what you're describing to be true, that it gets harder and harder to satirize a world that is inherently self-satirizing.
I wanted to touch on one issue that I have had with both Borat movies, which is the importance when you're watching them of separating the critique of these movies as acts of comedy and critiquing these movies as acts of journalism because I found, rewatching the 2006 "Borat," I laughed a lot. Like, even 14 years later, it still had these, like, bursts of shock and surprise and some of the comedic timing - like, it's a pretty tightly crafted hour and 23 minutes. And the jokes can hit pretty rhythmically and in ways that continue - even 14 years later, even with all that familiarity still made me laugh.
As journalism, I cannot help but find these movies really irresponsible. And I think it's worth pointing that out that, like, I don't consider these movies to be great feats of gonzo journalism the way I think some people do. I think you have issues. There's an issue with this current movie where, according to reports, like, they actually staged this debutante's ball. You know, you're watching and you're like, did these jokes happen in the order that they're being shown? Are they looping in jokes in order to punch up the comedy? I'm just constantly judging them as acts of journalism in ways that I don't think speaks well of the movies.
As acts of comedy, separate from that, I do think they have merit and can be enjoyable, but I think it's really hard to tease that out.
ROSARIO: I do think, again, having not rewatched the original, just off of memory, I mean, I felt myself feeling a lot of what you're saying, Stephen, in the sense that this felt more - well, besides the fact that it felt more haphazard, it also just felt a lot less aware of, like, power dynamics and structure than the original one. And I think that, for me, plays into what you're saying.
That said, though, I feel like we would call it something or might feel compelled to say something like journalism in part because we are now very aware of Sacha Baron Cohen's motivations, right? Like, he gave that very famous speech at the Anti-Defamation League, like, where he was calling out social media, Facebook in particular, issues that - you know, again, everyday news right now. Like, he clearly is someone who has actually been paying attention to this. I think that that can be the absolute motivation and his comedic work without it needing to be called journalism.
ROSARIO: And in this instance, it felt like the muddiness of the tactics certainly didn't serve him or help his purpose in terms of wanting to even call it that. But I do feel like the power dynamics in that one was a lot of him showing in a way how much people will treat a foreign person like they're not the same or the stakes don't matter.
And there's, like, a big part of that in there, whereas this one, again, because it's all over the place, it just makes that part even kind of harder to swallow 'cause you'll watch a good segment - again, like, I really do think the crisis pregnancy is, like, one of the strongest segments in the whole movie. And then you will have these other moments where you're like, you kind of - it feels like you're undermining your point.
THOMPSON: Well, I think you make an interesting point. With the crisis pregnancy center scene, the power dynamics of that scene are very different from the power dynamics of a scene where they're going in and buying propane.
THOMPSON: Or, like, even in a - at a gun store where, like, somebody's just there working at a gun store. The power dynamics there are different from somebody who is trying to exert their will on these characters.
THOMPSON: You know, so I think there is a big punching-up-versus-punching-down issue with both movies that can create some of that unease. And as such, I want to talk - of course, we have to talk - about the Rudy Giuliani scene...
THOMPSON: ...Which - I think it's a real shame for this movie. Like, it helped promote the movie, but it's also a climactic scene in the movie that ended up getting wildly spoiled in the days leading up to the release of this film. How did that scene strike you guys?
YOUNG: I think if you put that in tandem with the idea of punching up, punching down - by the time we got to this scene, here we are with this embattled politician who has embedded himself in a very controversial presidency, and here he is in this compromising position that I didn't feel was very surprising. Even when I read the news stories about what was happening, none of this felt surprising to me from this person.
And I didn't feel like anything, whether it be - anything of this scene, whether it be positive or negative reaction, was going to push the needle on my opinion of Rudy Giuliani in any form. I didn't know - it wasn't going to go up or down based on what he did in the scene. As a matter of fact, it would have been, for me, more shocking to see him offer a homeless person a sandwich...
YOUNG: ...Or if he, like, returned $100 to somebody that he found. I would have been like, they caught that on camera and he didn't know they were watching?
YOUNG: Like, I think that would have been probably crazier to me than to see what happened in the scene. But then to actually see the scene, I sat there and I'm like, OK, it doesn't look good, but also I can't really care as much as I think they want me to care in this moment, especially since we know that the lines of reality are blurred here. Like, we know that this is either journalism or a prank, you know?
YOUNG: Like, we know it's somewhere in that gray area there. So I'm like, so how much should I care, especially when I walked in already knowing what was going to happen? So I was basically...
YOUNG: When I was watching the "Borat" movie, I was watching a long lead up to this controversial moment more than I was watching just a regular "Borat" movie, which I think skews my viewing of it.
ROSARIO: So the news about the Giuliani stuff certainly was, like, all over the Internet. I kind of, you know, glanced at stuff and never clicked through in part because I wanted to at least take in the details of the moment in the movie, as opposed to reading about them online. So in terms of, like, the actual moment of watching it, I still had a very visceral reaction, where I just kind of kept hovering a hand over my eyes and going, I hate this, I hate it, I hate this (laughter). Like, it is deeply uncomfortable in a way that, if the person's goal is to make you uncomfortable, they succeeded.
But in terms of what is the point of it in a larger sense - right? - and, also, what's our expectation of Rudy Giuliani? I mean, obviously, people are very divided overall. But I would say, like, as a native New Yorker - very much remember his mayorship in New York.
ROSARIO: If you grew up in New York with him as mayor, like, there are things that you are aware of that never seem to make the national story of him outside of, like, being, like, you know, Mr. 9/11, if you will.
ROSARIO: And so, again, it's like, yeah, I'm not terribly surprised. The access maybe seems like the most surprising thing just 'cause that was something that was shocking in 2006 that should be harder now, I guess?
ROSARIO: But, otherwise, it's just a very strange thing. And, I mean, Ron, you make a really good point, too. It's like, the fact that this is all over the Internet, it's like, that is clearly - was meant to be a big, like, end thing.
THOMPSON: A reveal.
ROSARIO: And so you're leading up to - tonally, pacewise, it's mentally confusing (laughter). Like, you're like, OK, and now here's the big thing I heard about - and credits. Like, it's just strange.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that it can't help but feel a little underwhelming when you've kind of heard all about it. There is this kind of swell of dramatic music in that scene, but then that scene just shifts so abruptly out of itself that you're kind of expecting a little bit more from it. I don't think the movie itself was - from a promotional standpoint, the movie was well-served by it. But from an enjoyment of the movie standpoint, it wasn't. And as you said, Daisy, you did touch on something that I wanted to get across about these movies - these are stressful to watch.
ROSARIO: They are stressful.
YOUNG: Yes (laughter).
THOMPSON: And that's a cringe comedy thing, and everybody's mileage varies with cringe comedy. But I agree that this movie is a little less satisfying than the one before it.
YOUNG: I think also that there's better versions of this. I think "Who Is America?" is a better version of this. I think "Nathan For You" - which some of the creators of this film worked on - is a better version of this...
YOUNG: ...Where they walk up to the cringe line - and they cross the cringe line a few times - but you walk away and you don't really feel like anybody was hurt. There's ways in which watching "Nathan For You" or any other type of cringey comedy shows - even something like "Impractical Jokers" - you walk away and you just don't feel yucky, you know? (Laughter).
You feel like they probably at some point turned to these guys and said, there's a joke, whereas with "Borat," even if you tell them it's a joke, it's like, yeah, we're still going to put this up. You know, if you were at the CPAC Conference, this is still going out as a feature-length film.
YOUNG: So there's just something yucky about that that I can't exactly put my finger on.
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THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm."
THOMPSON: Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much to you both for being here.
YOUNG: Thank you.
ROSARIO: Thank you for having me.
THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all right back here tomorrow, when we'll be talking about "The Great British Baking Show."
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