Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Brüno is the third of social satirist Sacha Baron Cohen’s clueless characters to get his own movie after debuting in Baron Cohen’s brilliant TV sketch comedy, Da Ali G Show. Ali G was the standout on TV, but Baron Cohen’s aggressively awkward, prejudice-ridden Kazakh reporter, Borat Sagdiyev, translated best to film. In the explosively funny Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006), Borat conducted his own personal shock and awe campaign, focusing the world’s attention on the British comedian and his inventions.
Brüno is following in his big brother’s footsteps, making an estimated $42 million on his opening weekend, but if this had been the first of the three movies to open, I don’t think it would have done very well. Like the first in Baron Cohen’s series, Ali G Indahouse, Brüno has some laugh-out-loud moments, but it feels like a series of sketches stitched together with very thin thread. After starting out strong, it gets progressively weaker, feeling slow or repetitive in spots and ending with more of a whimper than a bang.
Like all three Marx Brothers rolled into one, Baron Cohen combines physical slapstick, sophisticated wordplay, a healthy disrespect for the status quo, funny accents, and inspired moments of pure comic anarchy to throw prejudice and arbitrary social mores into sharp relief – and to provide some intensely satisfying, “oh-no-he-didn’t” belly laughs. This time around he’s targeting homophobia, and he lands a few good jabs.
Brüno is a witless, narcissistic stereotype of a gay fashionista, a man as campily effeminate and fame-starved as Zsa Zsa Gabor. Baron Cohen also makes him “Austrian,” the way he made Borat “Kazakh,” as another entrance through which to mine our stereotypes and fears.
Soon after the movie begins, Brüno is “schwartzlisted” from Austrian TV for an unfortunate incident involving an all-Velcro suit he wears to a fashion show. (His mishap with the suit is a classic piece of physical comedy—which you can see it in the trailer on YouTube, along with almost all of the movie’s other best moments. )
So he heads to Hollywood, his adoring personal assistant in tow. Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) stick to their winning formula for Borat here, boomeranging Brüno from L.A. to the deep South and back again as he does increasingly outlandish things in his search for fame.
But where Borat’s best encounters were memorable because of the bad behavior they brought out in other people, the humor in Brüno comes mostly from seeing Brüno himself do outrageous things. This movie’s biggest shock for me was the anal bleaching salon he goes to (who knew?), though some people may be bothered by how often he puts his naked penis on display.
A lot of Brüno’s targets are too-easy marks: a barrel-scraping agent desperate enough to sign Brüno despite his glaring lack of talent, a psychic who pretends to contact one of Brüno’s lost loves and then gets visibly uncomfortable as Brüno mimes graphic sex with the dear departed; a pair of vacuous PR twins who can’t pronounce “Darfur.”
Now and then, one of Baron Cohen’s satirical arrows hits home. Paula Abdul, who has admitted that she was lured to Brüno’s unfurnished house by the promise of a fictional award, burbles on about how helping people is her whole life – while sitting on one of the Mexican gardeners Brüno has enlisted to serve as “chairs.” A bit where a series of stage moms agree to submit their children to all kinds of dangers and abuses in hopes of getting them into a video is also horrifyingly hilarious.
But Brüno’s so obnoxious himself that I sometimes sympathized with the people he ambushed. When three good ol’ boys take him hunting in Alabama and he tries repeatedly to climb into one guy’s tent in the middle of the night, or when he tries to seduce former presidential candidate Ron Paul in the middle of an interview, I can’t blame them for getting mad. True, the intensity of their rage is a little scary, but is that homophobia or just anger at being come onto so aggressively after making it clear that you aren’t interested?
If you’re looking for a light summer movie that will give you some laughs, Brüno may be just the ticket. But for a transgressive social satire – something that makes you think as well as chortle – you need to take my man Borat out of retirement.
Written for TimeOFF