Monday, July 27, 2009

Movie Review: Bruno

Bruno *** ½
Directed By: Larry Charles.
Written By: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer & Jeff Schaffer based on the character created by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen (Brüno), Gustaf Hammarsten (Lutz), Clifford Bañagale (Diesel).

I never cease to be amazing by the brazen genius of Sacha Baron Cohen. Whether he’s playing a gay racecar driver in Talladega Nights, a faux Italian barber in Sweeney Todd or one of his own outrageous characters, Baron Cohen seems to have absolutely no fear. In 2006’s brilliant Borat he played a reporter from Kazaksthan who through his own Anti-Semitism and racism exposed America’s value system as well. Now he’s back with Bruno, playing the most extreme version of the gay stereotype you can imagine to once again pokes fun at America’s value system. And while the result is certainly more scattershot than its predecessor, it is even more daring. You cannot help but wonder how Baron Cohen made it through this film without being killed – or at least having the crap kicked out of him.

Bruno is, like Borat, a character from Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show. He is an Austrian TV host of a show about fashion, where his extreme homosexuality pokes fun at America’s vapid celebrity obsessed culture, as well as its barely veiled homophobia. Watching Bruno, pretty much everyone is likely to be offended, but you have to hand it to Baron Cohen – the man is willing to do just about anything.

Take for example a scene in which Bruno walks down the street is Israel in a Jewish school boy outfit, cut to make him it look incredibly gay. Or when he tells an admitted terrorist that his leader looks like “a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa Claus”. Or when he goes on a talk show in Dallas, with a primarily African American audience, calls them all racist and says that he adopted his African son by “swapping him for an Ipod” and gave him a traditional African name – OJ. Or when he tries to get into the tent of a Southern hunter completely naked at 3 am. Or when he tries to seduce Texas Republican Ron Paul. Or when he crashes a “God Hates Fags” rally while literally strapped to his gay lover in a weird bondage position. But none of that compares to the finale of the film where Bruno, who has now become “straight” whips up a white trash crowds intense homophobia until it’s about to explode, then strips down and makes out with another man, prompting angry screaming, tears and chairs been thrown onto the mat – all the while, Baron Cohen never blinks – never breaks character. You are amazed that he never seems to get seriously hurt either.

As I mentioned before, Bruno is more scattershot than Borat was. While in the previous film, Baron Cohen set out to expose America’s inherent racism and Anti-Semitism, and did a brilliant job of it; in Bruno he tries to attack too many things. In the beginning of the film, he briefly attacks the vapidity of the fashion world, telling a model that she has the hardest job in the world. “You have to move your right leg forward, then your left, and then remember which leg to put forward again, and then you have to turn”. He makes a fool of himself at fashion week in Milan, before being kicked out, and heading to America to become the biggest gay Austrian celebrity since Arnold Schwarzenegger.

His attempts at becoming famous in America are pitiful. He makes a TV show pilot, which he somehow gets a test audience for, which essentially consists of him dancing around (often completely naked – yes you see more penis in this movie than in most porn films), trying to interview Paula Abdul while sitting on his “Mexican Chair People”, insulting Jamie Lynn Spears unborn child, saying that on the ultrasound he looks “retarded” and confronting Harrison Ford as he comes out of a store. He tries to solve the Middle East Peace Project, and fails. He adopts an African baby, and sets out photo shoots with the baby being crucified like Jesus, and then determines that like “Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey”, he needs to be straight, so he heads off to two counselors who say they can “cure” his homosexuality – and then proceeds to humiliate both of them. While you may wonder if some of Baron Cohen’s real life targets in his film deserve the treatment they receive, these two jackasses get exactly what they deserve.

What is brilliant about Bruno is the same thing that was brilliant about Borat. The character is so far over the top that he appears ridiculous to most people, but to some they accept him at face value. Bruno does not really resemble any actual homosexual person that I have ever met, but instead he represents the most extreme stereotypical fear that people who never actually met a gay person harbor about them. He confirms their worst fears, and then rubs their faces in it. Perhaps the most unforgettable image from the movie (yes, more unforgettable than the talking penis) is a man at that final wrestling match who is literally crying as he watches Bruno and his lover make out. He wanted to see some good old fashioned man on man wrestling, not what he got.

Bruno is not the film that Borat was, but perhaps that’s because Baron Cohen cannot surprise us twice. When I watched Borat, I felt like I was watching something completely new a different – it is literally one of the most original movies of the decade and it marked Baron Cohen as a comedic genius on the level of Andy Kaufman or Peter Sellers. Bruno confirms that genius, but cannot quite shock us in the same way.

I realize that this review was more summarizing the action in the film than anything else, but that’s because that is about all you can do with a film like Bruno. I suspect that many audiences have been uncomfortable with the film – which is why it made $30 million in its opening weekend and only $25 million in the two weeks since. Many straight men seem uncomfortable looking at penises (why I’m not sure, don’t they ever look down in the shower?) and I suspect that women are as well. But Bruno is one of the most interesting films of the year, even if Baron Cohen doesn’t quite hit the level he was going for. American prides itself on being open and tolerant – but at the end of the day, it still has a long way to go. Baron Cohen looks this prejudice in the eye, and doesn’t back down. Yes, you can insult the film for being juvenile or silly, and making too many jokes about penises, and oral sex, and that the sex scene between Baron Cohen, but that’s kind of the point. You are likely to be uncomfortable at times watching Bruno, and that’s how it should be. It is that level of discomfort that Baron Cohen creates in his audience that makes him a genius.

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