Whatever your views on Sacha Baron Cohen the performer, you’ve got to admit that the guy’s got balls of titanium. He’s put his head in the lion’s mouth more times than Siegfried and Roy over the past two decades, and it’s a wonder he’s still alive to tell the tale.
Whether taking down pompous politicians or rabid right-wingers, he’s become the ultimate prank machine who bamboozles supposedly sane people into saying or doing the most insane things. I am literally counting down the hours till it’s revealed he was behind Jeffrey Toobin’s “Zoom Dick” incident earlier this week.
It says something after all the crazy stunts he pulled off in his 2018 television series “Who is America?” that his latest film – “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” – may contain some of his wildest, most outrageous moments yet.
Baron Cohen caught me and many others off guard – he flies under the radar more times than an F-35 pilot – with his surprise decision to revisit that hapless Kazakh journalist with the crumpled suit and involuntary vowel movements (“Very niiice”).
I’d always assumed the British comedian was from the John Belushi school of comedy, preferring to kill his characters before he grew tired of them. But really, who better than Borat Margaret Sagdiyev to provide us with the most hilarious foreign intervention in U.S. politics in this, the craziest of all election years? And just in case you miss the film’s, uh, subtle points about the Trump regime, this message appears at the end: “Now vote or you will be execute [sic].” (It’s available on Amazon Prime Video in most territories.)
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I don’t want to spoil too much, because there are so many tear-inducing moments to enjoy here if you don’t mind the crassness and grossness. So all I’ll say is the highlights include an antisemitic chocolate cake, a faux Disney cartoon featuring Melania Trump as Cinderella and McDonald Trump as her “vagine-grabbing” king, a crisis pregnancy center, a plastic surgery clinic, and a “Fight For our Rights” militia-style rally at the height of the coronavirus crisis. (Parts of Baron Cohen’s performance as a country and western singer leaked earlier this year, and it’s a wonder most of these events never made it into the public domain.)
There’s also a couple of QAnon-espousing guys who think the Clintons are “extremely evil” but happen to be very sweet, helpful dudes, and the most disturbingly obliging propane gas salesman in history. (Asked if a canister would be enough to “finish lives of 20 gypsies,” he helpfully suggests the larger size next to it.)
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Then there are the tear-inducing captions and gags (I’m still laughing over one featuring Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the line “My daddy’s the smartest person in the whole flat world”).
Baron Cohen once again teeters on the edge of tastefulness before crashing through to the other side. As he trades on Jewish stereotypes (“What’s wrong with my nose? Do I look like a Jew?”) and makes the most insensitive jokes imaginable about the Holocaust (“All we [Kazakhs] had left was Holocaust Remembrance Day, where we commemorated our heroic soldiers who ran the camps”), you’re having to remind yourself that he’s having the last laugh here. He’s a Jewish comedian saying half his dialogue in Hebrew and is, in real life, leading the charge against Holocaust denial on social media.
He’s wonderfully assisted by newcomer Maria Bakalova as his 15-year-old daughter Tutar, who dreams of living in a golden cage “just like Melania.” How she keeps a straight face in any of these scenes is a wonder in itself. Seriously, the 24-year-old Bulgarian deserves a best supporting actress Oscar for her work here.
We could have predicted the film’s shameless vulgarity. What’s more surprising is the number of genuinely touching scenes in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” The pick of them involve the world’s loveliest babysitter, who tutors Tutar not to get plastic surgery (“Your titties will not keep you from drowning”). Then there’s an amazing scene where a suicidal Borat goes to a synagogue looking like a Nazi caricature of a Jew. In typically black fashion, he explains his visit thusly: “Since I did not have money to buy a gun, I went to the nearest synagogue to wait for the next mass shooting.”
He meets a couple of congregants, including Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans (who later died and to whom the film is dedicated). Again, in typical Baron Cohen style, it’s when Judith bears witness to the horrors of the Shoah that his character is given hope anew, since he now knows it wasn’t a “fairy tale,” as Holocaust-denial posts on Facebook would have him believe.
The film is a succession of riotous set pieces, most of them quite modest in scale. One includes buying a “calculator” – aka smartphone – in-store and writing inappropriate messages on a TV screen. Another sees him dictating desperate messages to a fax shop employee about the fate of Johnny the Monkey, who at the beginning of the film is meant to be a bribe to “Vice Pussy-Grabber Mikhael Pence.”
The most attention-seeking scenes are the ones involving high-profile Republicans. Baron Cohen dresses as Donald Trump and crashes the Conservative Political Action Conference, Tutar on his back, just after Pence has finished his speech with the uncanny words “We’re ready for anything.” Not this you weren’t. Funnily enough, this stunt falls a little flat, but luckily it’s preceded by an absolute stunner involving the KKK and Stephen Miller.
Then, of course, there’s the headline-grabbing scene featuring Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in which he has a one-one-one interview in a hotel room with Tutar, who’s now masquerading as a right-wing journalist.
It’s definitely a honey trap, but you despair at the apparent antics of a powerful man like Giuliani in flirting with a young woman and then lying on the bed with his hand down his pants. You really don’t need deepfake technology when you have deeply stupid men like the former New York mayor seemingly willing to engage in such acts (which he denies, of course).
What’s particularly fascinating about this belated, unexpected sequel to “Borat” is that Baron Cohen’s character hasn’t grown any crazier since the first film came out in 2006. Instead, it’s America that’s moved closer to embracing him with its conspiracy theories, corrupt politicians, rejection of science and blinding partisanship.
He’s simply using the weapons that America has created and is turning them back on the country and its FUBAR ways. At this rate, it’ll be a miracle if the country is still functioning when “Borat 3” arrives in 2034. The only signs of hope come in the acts of decency displayed by some of the real-life people who inadvertently find themselves starring in this very funny film.
‘On the Rocks’
If “Borat” is shamelessly crude fun, there are classier laughs in Sofia Coppola’s delightful comedy “On the Rocks” (Apple TV+), featuring the winning pairing of Bill Murray and Rashida Jones.
For my money, Coppola is one of the most underrated filmmakers in America today. Her movies have an almost effortless grace, whether she’s exploring solitude in Tokyo (“Lost in Translation”), revealing the vacuousness of modern teenage life (“The Bling Ring”), or capturing spectacular royal excesses and costumes (“Marie Antoinette”). Plus, she never fails to extract subtle yet believable performances from her actors (yes, even Colin Farrell in “The Beguiled” and Emma Watson in “Bling Ring”).
If I didn’t think it might dissuade you from watching it, I’d describe “On the Rocks” as the best movie Woody Allen never made. After all, it’s set in a highly photogenic New York, has a fabulous soundtrack featuring classics from the Great American Songbook and, best of all, has a wellspring of choice one-liners and witty exchanges.
Interestingly, the film focuses on that most rarely examined of on-screen familial relationships: that of father and daughter – though, strictly speaking, this is daughter-father, as it’s told from the offspring’s perspective. (Funnily enough, it’s something it has in common with “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”)
Jones has terrific comedy skills (as witnessed in “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and the wonderfully silly “Angie Tribeca”), but here she’s playing the straight woman to Bill Murray’s character, Felix. She’s his long-suffering daughter, Laura, a young mom with two sweet young kids and a seemingly adoring husband, Dean (Marlon Wayans). But motherhood is proving exhausting and she has a bad case of writer’s block in the chicest of Manhattan apartments. (Coppola is never going to be mistaken for Ken Loach, that’s for sure.)
In another actor’s hands, Murray’s character – an aging art dealer who never met a woman half his age he didn’t want to seduce – could have been a complete creep, an antediluvian embodiment of white privilege. But this is Bill Murray we’re talking about, so it’s impossible not to fall for his louche, laid-back charms.
Felix’s saving grace is his unblinking (albeit frequently misplaced) love for his daughter. But he’s definitely the wrong person to turn to for help when Laura suspects her husband might be having an affair with a co-worker. Truly, getting marital advice from Felix is like asking for sex tips from the pope. For instance, he immediately counsels her to tap her husband’s phone and have him followed, something he himself is only too keen to pursue (to very funny effect in one of the film’s standout scenes).
I loved “On the Rocks” and would happily pay to watch the subsequent adventures of Laura and Felix – and there aren’t many comedies I say that about these days. Coppola also wrote the witty script (shades of Nora Ephron, though lacking that slight hint of bite), but if you’re wondering whether it’s autobiographical, well, her filmmaker parents Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola have been married for almost 60 years, so maybe not.
British director Ben Wheatley has made some great films in his brief career – particularly the black-as-asphalt “Sightseers” in 2012. But this new Netflix adaptation of the 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel is a major disappointment.
I can only assume someone told Wheatley that Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” in 1998 was the most ill-conceived Hitchcock homage of all time. To which the filmmaker must have replied: “Hold my beer.”
Yes, “Rebecca” looks fantastic with its lavish interior design and 1930s period detail. But this is more like a cross between “Downton Abbey” and a very stale murder mystery than a serious attempt to capture the mysteries of Manderley – the “secretive and silent” home our narrator talks of in one of British literature’s most famous opening lines: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Well, once was more than enough for me.
There are several glaring problems in “Rebecca,” with the giant shadow being cast by Hitchcock’s hauntingly atmospheric 1940 film being but one of them.
Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is having two characters at its barely-beating heart who act like a couple of runaways from Madame Tussauds. Such is the inertness that Armie Hammer and Lily James bring to their performances as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter, I had to keep checking they hadn’t dozed off. There’s actually a scene when one of them goes sleepwalking, but good luck differentiating it from the rest of the film.
Then there’s Kristin Scott Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers. I love Scott Thomas’ work, but she’s given a thankless task here as the scowling, cold-hearted mistress of the house with more secrets than a Mossad archive.
Another problem is that while this new version adheres slightly more faithfully to du Maurier’s novel than Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning adaptation, this merely highlights the fustiness of the source material.
I quickly found myself distracted by the film’s references to far better movies, mostly by the “master of suspense” himself: the grandeur of Monte Carlo and fireworks of “To Catch a Thief,” and the numerous nods to “The Birds” – another du Maurier story adapted by Hitchcock, though this “Rebecca” can’t seem to decide if it wants its heroine to look more like Tippi Hedron in “The Birds” or Kim Novak in “Vertigo.” Meanwhile, the vintage car scenes are presumably a wink to Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion.”
There’s also a somewhat laughable nod to another du Maurier story, when James’ character pursues a figure wearing a red dress through the narrow corridors of Manderley and that film’s title, “Don’t Look Now,” turns out to be good advice.
Still, one element Wheatley effectively retains is how the creepy Mrs. Danvers is constantly able to scare the bejesus out of the new Mrs. de Winter by suddenly materializing in a room and waxing lyrical about the late title character – who, of course, we never see.
“She never knew when Mrs. Danvers might turn up and this, in itself, was terrifying,” Hitchcock explained to fellow filmmaker François Truffaut in the latter’s seminal 1978 book “Hitchcock by Truffaut.” Sadly, terrifying isn’t the word for this forgettable “Rebecca.”
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is on Amazon Prime Video, “On the Rocks” is on Apple TV+ and “Rebecca” is on Netflix. All three are out now.