Saturday, August 8, 2009

Fashionably Late: Sacha Baron Cohen and Brüno

(I originally wrote this review for the Santa Fe Reporter, where I'm one of their hard-working and ruggedly handsome editorial interns, to be put on their hugely successful blog, However, I was assigned this at a time when I was too busy/tired/lazy to get it finished at a reasonable time- when I finally presented it, everyone had long forgotten about Brüno and his antics. For the sake of my own bemusement, and to try and make this blog not seem so gosh darn dead, I offer you this review which would have no doubt garnered thousands of reads and mounds of critical acclaim on the Reeper, as opposed to here, where I'll no doubt be beaming with pride if I get a single comment on it. Enjoy!)

Does this bug you? I'm not touching you. Does this bug you?

In a strange way, there’s a sense that the apparent failures of Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles’ Brüno- its mixed critical response, its apparent inability to spawn a pop culture catchphrase out of Brüno’s “Vassap!” in the same way Baron Cohen did with nearly every word he uttered in 2006’s Borat, the reports of repulsed moviegoers fleeing the theater en masse – could really be its greatest successes. If Baron Cohen’s mission from the start has been the decidedly political one of exposing us (“us” being the American public, cultural elites… really anyone he ends up interviewing) as an ugly, bigoted and ultimately hypocritical lot, what could possibly fulfill that goal better than- in the space of less than three years- creating a pop icon out of the misogynistic, thoughtless, funny-accent-wielding Borat only to turn around and make a cultural villain out of the misogynistic, thoughtless, funny-accent-wielding Brüno… the difference between the two, of course, being that Brüno is flamboyantly gay? Indeed, aside from looking rather embarrassingly out-of-the-loop (as certain groups did in railing against Borat’s obviously in-bad-taste, button-pushing portrayal of Kazakhstan and its people), what feels rather unfortunate about certain gay rights activists speaking out against the film is that they seem to miss that, under the film’s miles and miles of dick and ball jokes, there lies, in its own twisted way, a call for tolerance as Baron Cohen sometimes literally puts his life at risk for no more awful a crime than making unsuspecting victims uncomfortable.

Don’t get the wrong impression, though, as at the end of the day, Brüno is still, at the risk of sounding vulgar, all about balls- namely, the gigantic pair hanging on Sacha Baron Cohen. Witnessing Baron Cohen, in character and flanked by AK47-wielding guards, tell a terrorist cell leader that his “King Osama looks like a kind of dirty wizard, or a homeless Santa,” almost makes the most suicidal stunts of the Jackass crew appear staid and sensible. It’s in these situations where Brüno shines, offering not cutting-edge comedy so much as scenes that become comedy by virtue of how far past that edge Baron Cohen is willing to go. There’s something bordering on the sociopathic in scenes of a nude Brüno attempting to force his way into the tent of a homophobic deer hunter in the middle of the night or, as the handlebar-moustached character-within-a-character “Straight Dave,” Baron Cohen and costar Gustaf Hammarsten passionately making out as they are pelted by cups of beer and more than a few folding chairs in the middle of a mixed martial arts event that Baron Cohen and company had promoted on their own with hilariously over-the-top shirts proclaiming the straight pride of those attending. Had Brüno been presented as an almost Jackass-style collection of stunts, the film certainly would have been more successful, both as a comedy and as an incidental indictment of America’s odd dual obsession/repulsion with violence, sex and masculinity. Instead, we’re privy to a loose narrative concerning Brüno and his travels that may, more than anything, make Baron Cohen’s comedic weak points glaringly obvious. Satirizing celebrities who make sex tapes and adopt African babies, for instance, can’t help but feel incredibly stale and limp at this point in the game, while a brief segment of Brüno’s fake Austrian TV show that compares Autism and Chlamydia as to which is more fashionably “in” and the film’s constant references to Hitler feel like the last dying gasps of the kind of South Park-style transparent, transgressive attempt to offend at any cost that seems to be going out of fashion in favor of a more subtle, sophisticated approach (see: Zach Galifianakis as the only point of interest in The Hangover). What’s disappointing about Brüno is not its “controversial” material, but just how behind the curb Baron Cohen seems this time around. What’s even more disappointing, though, is that society at large seems to be even farther behind- more offensive than any of Baron Cohen’s antics is the hacking to bits and heavy editing of certain scenes, mandated by the MPAA to escape the dreaded NC-17 rating. What one comes away with from these mangled scenes-mostly those of imaginatively over-the-top and clearly simulated gay sex- is Baron Cohen’s impish delight in offending and pushing boundaries of taste… and of the movie industry’s general inability to treat its audience as discerning, intelligent creatures that understand the concept of “humor”. In a decade that has seen so many ups and downs in the fights for gay acceptance and marriage equality, Brüno may just stand as one of its oddest relics- as tepid and lazy at points as it is overwhelmingly brave and brilliant in others, and at once both enemy and product of the fears and irrational prejudices of society at large. Whether or not Brüno and its humor appears antiquated years from now, one can at least hope that its priggish, unsophisticated reception does.

Brüno (2009, d. Larry Charles): 2.5/4

1 comment:

Gorga said...

I must admit, I had written "Bruno" off as "Borat" redux and after hearing that it was not as good (and I didn't really like "Borat"...) and decided I wasn't going to bother unless someone tied me down and forced me to see the thing (or brought me for free, whichever came first). But now? I am curious.

To see two actors invite 'real people' to an event supposedly celebrating heterosexuality and have chairs thrown at them while making out? That sounds strong. That sounds poignant. That sounds... funny... at the same time.

Thanks Alex for another excellent review.