Mary McNamara: Why I'm not laughing at the new 'Borat' movie

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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?

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.


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.

"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.


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