Then Playing — Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Another Round; Hillbilly Elegy

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Jason Wollner, 2020). Notably stronger than its predecessor from fourteen years earlier, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm returns the title Kazakh journalist (Sacha Baron Cohen) to the good ol’ Land of the Free. Borat’s stated mission is to put his country in the good graces of the doltish peddler of red caps while he was still infesting the White House. Baron Cohen’s real goal is expose the noxious bigotry and close-mindedness that animates a dismaying number of U.S. citizens, typically through puckish assaults on shaky norms. While director Jason Wollner and the stacked crew of adaptive, pointed pranksters captures some true feats of hidden-camera high jinks that expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy, the easy provocations are generally the least interesting parts of the film. Baron Cohen and his multiple screenplay collaborators lace the stunt into a narrative framework about Borat gradually learning to respect and admire his fifteen-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova). The story is surprisingly affecting, in no small part because of the bold, fearless, and deeply felt performance by relative newcomer Bakalova. She matches Baron Cohen’s gonzo energy while also doing him one better, building a character while he’s mostly content to perform a caricature.

Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020). A group of friends, withering under the drudgery of middle-aged, middle-class existence, embark on experiment. They attempt to function in a state of continual mild inebriation, convinced it will result in more confidence, less stress, and a more congenial atmosphere all around. Thomas Vinterberg’s film has a scruffy charm and boasts fine performances, especially the leading turn by Mads Mikkelsen. It also feels as disposable as a bottle cap, clipping along at an agreeable pace with a plot that’s lacking in surprise. Like a boozy night out, it’s enjoyable while in moving through it and lingers in the memory in only the foggiest form. Still, it’s worth every frame shot just for giving Mikkelsen the sort of joyfully superfluous dance scene once reserved for John Travolta. I’m assuming a U.S. remake will be excitedly announced any minute.

Hillbilly Elegy (Ron Howard, 2020). I’ll admit to some incoming animosity stemming from the knowledge that J.D. Vance, author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy, is currently trying out the latest upgrade on deniable bigotry that rakes in Republican dollars. Even so, I feel confident that my bias has little to do with the determination that Ron Howard’s film adaptation is a dog. Vance’s eager claiming of prejudice and persecution against him for his troubled background permeates the film, providing the cardboard cutout version of an hero who overcomes hardships to inspirationally prosper. Hey, it’s obviously way more comforting to invent external judgment than to admit to shortcomings. As dreadfully exhausting as the film’s sociopolitical observations are, the bare mechanics of its storytelling are yet worse. Howard hashes scenes together in a way that suggest uncharacteristic indifference or, to be charitable, regret in taking the gig in the first place. Hillbilly Elegy isn’t quite at the level of Bohemian Rhapsody in the rankings of horribly edited major releases, but it’s not all that far behind. The performances veer wildly between wooden (Gabriel Basso as J.D. Vance) and unbearably hammy (Amy Adams and Glenn Close).

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