A film review by Craig J. Koban July 23, 2009
2009, R, 82 mins.
2009, R, 82 mins.
Brüno: Sacha Baron Cohen / Lutz: Gustaf Hammarsten
Sacha Baron Cohen’s devilishly hysterical and cheerfully
subversive satire, BRUNO, demonstrates the same rebellious level of
disregard to good taste and decorum as his 2006 mockumentary,
BORAT (or, to quote that
film’s lengthy, but side-splitting title, CULTURAL
LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN).
You may remember that the film observed the arrival of a
Kazakhstani reporter that ventured into the heart of America to discover
what made Yankees tick…not to mention that he wanted to score with
Pamela Anderson. I think that
the enormity of that film’s lewdness and scandalous debauchery
overwhelmed the slyer message that Cohen was preaching.
Borat was an
irreproachable anti-Semite and came from a nation that has many
preconceived racist views: his indirect treatment of the people he came
across was often painfully awkward to sit through.
Yet, Borat was a oddly loveable comic creation because he
was a figure of perpetual-idiotic tunnel vision: He did and said
things so abysmally inane that one was almost willing to forgive them as
being oppressive and offensive.
The interesting arc to Borat’s character was that he was often
less odious and distasteful than the Americans he came across during the
course of the film.
The more incessantly uncomfortable Borat made people feel the more
his character drew out attention to the notions of race and race relations
BORAT was a film that has been wrongly viewed as one of
perpetuating nasty ethnic stereotypes; to the contrary, the film was
simply holding up a mirror to the nation.
Borat – albeit rather involuntarily – revealed how
deplorable seemingly normal people can act that feel that
their actions and words are normal.
subtle brilliance of films like BORAT and Cohen’s latest effort, BRUNO.
Much to the same successful and uproarious effect, Cohen and his
director, Larry Charles (the helmer of both BORAT and the wickedly funny RELIGULOUS)
employ guerrilla filmmaking tactics to paint a savage and creepily honest
outlook on homophobia in America.
Cohen - much like a Michael Moore, but perhaps even more
unstoppably aggressive – takes cheeky relish in ambushing people that
are hopelessly naive, ignorant, and, let’s face it, moronic.
The easy response to Cohen and Charles’ methods would be to
criticize them for aiming their crosshairs on “easy” targets, but his
choices provide a considerable amount of crafty social commentary towards
how Americans view the homosexual community.
What’s paramount to understand here is that Cohen is not merely propagating
gay stereotypes (which he does with a fierce and never-say-die
attitude), but rather he is using Bruno’s unrelenting flamboyance and
effeminate nature to reveal the petty homophobia of the subjects he
interviews and comes in contact with.
BRUNO summersaults its way into the discrete and subverted sexual
anxieties that its viewers have regarding the gay community and pulls
absolutely no punches whatsoever in revealing the often hypocritical
nature of its targets.
That, and the film
is extraordinarily hilarious in doing so.
Not all are too
keen on Cohen’s choices.
Rashad Robinson, Senior Director of media programs for the Gay and
Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, recently told the New York Times
that, “Some gay advocates are worried that Cohen could reinforce
negative stereotypes against homosexuals.”
He called Cohen’s attempts in the film both “problematic” and
“downright offensive.” Now,
there is no doubt that BRUNO is a comedy that pushes the extremes of its R
rating more than any other recent adult comedy (it is jam packed galore
with incessantly filthy jokes, sight gags involving various aspects of the
male appendage, and maintains a dirty undercurrent of licentiousness
throughout its sparse 83 minutes).
This is not a clean and refined film.
Yet, I think that the film’s outward façade of smutty
excessiveness has placed blinders over the eyes of the very people that
chastise the film as a piece of hate propaganda.
Cohen’s approach is necessary to attack the two main targets of
the film: rampant homophobes and the materialistic fetishes of Hollywood
Yes, Bruno may be very, very, very gay…but his
altercations with people both famous and not-so-famous exposes so many
unnerving truths about how terribly intolerant and uncharitable modern
culture is, especially at a time in history when we all seem to think of
ourselves as perfectly considerate and caring souls.
Now, there is not
much of an actual plot, per se, to speak of here – more or less just a
series of small skits that allow Cohen and Charles the right opportunity
to savagely roast their oftentimes unsuspecting targets.
All you need to really know is that Cohen plays Bruno, a boated,
egotistical, and obsessively self-loving gay Austrian fashion reporter
that’s about as flaming as any homosexual could possibly be (his
character is lovingly re-created by the actor based on his stint and
initial appearance on TV’s THE ALI G SHOW, which also introduced the
world to Borat).
He has been fixture on the European runways for quite some time,
but in the film’s introduction he has a major falling out with the
producers of his show, Funkyzeit, after a serious wardrobe malfunction involving
a suit made entirely of Velcro in front of a live audience.
Needless to say, Bruno is abruptly fired and decides that the only
thing for him to do now is to become a gigantic overnight celebrity in
Accompanying him is his loyal manservant that desperately hopes to
be something more to Bruno, Lutz (Gustaf Hammaresten) and together
they leave Austria for the land of opportunity.
Failure strikes Bruno from the get go in his attempts to become a lavish superstar and it is here where the film’s comic mileage really soars. He initially gets a job working as an extra on the NBC’s MEDIUM, which barely lasts an afternoon due to Bruno’s lack of restraint in his performance as a courtroom extra. One of the film’s most shockingly eccentric and downright laugh-out-loud sequences shows a doomed pilot for a TV show that Bruno wishes to head up that would involve him interviewing famous people. Clips from it include, in random order: Bruno speaking with reality TV star Brittney Gastineau and asking her opinion as to whether Jamie-Lynn Spear’s fetus is retarded and needs to be aborted; his truly perplexing interview with an apparently clueless Paula Abdul, which culminates with him offering her food served on a naked immigrant's body; his getting an “exclusive” interview with Harrison Ford that last about ten seconds and ends with the very angry and annoyed actor uttering a two word vulgar threat; and finally an enormously surreal montage involving Bruno’s most intimate body part, shot in close up, doing things that it would not normally do, like look into the camera and speaking Bruno’s name.
Yes, the sickened and traumatized focus group hates the show with
every fiber of their being. Granted, it
probably marks the only time in TV history where a penis speaks
directly into the camera.
Realizing that his show is now dead in the water, Bruno consults a spiritualist for advice, which leads to a screamingly funny and naughty scene where Bruno makes contact with the deceased spirit of the leader of the long defunct Milli Vanilli for an opportunity to perform one last bit of oral sex on him. He then attends a PR firm run by what has to be the worst PR people in the history of the profession for advice as to how to become famous and respected (you can just sense Cohen’s utter mocking disdain for the two pea-brained and bubble headed PR chicks as they dispense one bit of idiotic advice after another). This leads to some of the film’s shrewdest and most cunning social satire: Bruno decides that he will try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by flying to Jerusalem to have a joint interview with a former Mossad agent and a Palestinian politician that results in the completely hapless Bruno asking one incredulously dumb question after another. When he accidentally confuses hamas with hummus, he triumphantly decrees to both men, “Well, can we all at least agree that we all like hummus.”
Perhaps even more
daring is when Bruno decides that the best way to get famous is to be
kidnapped by terrorists.
He makes the categorical error of arranging a meeting with Ayman
Abu Aita, a well know terrorist leader in Lebanon and Bruno, through a
truly befuddled translator, insults Aita’s hair and then suggest that
“King Osama” looks like a dirty wizard and a homeless Santa Claus.
Aita, in no uncertain terms, quickly orders Bruno to leave before
things get messy.
The film is not
over yet: Bruno then returns to the US and conjures up a new way to
get some easy Hollywood street cred: he trades in his i-Phone for an
African baby because, in his warped mind, since Madonna and Angelina Jolie
have done it, then why can’t he?
He names the infant “O.J.”, seeing as he wanted to give the boy a
name indicative of the proud African American heritage.
He reveals all of this on a talk show hosted by Richard Bey, where
his overwhelming black audience lambastes the oblivious Bruno with
Thankfully, social services shows up and quickly takes baby O.J. away
from Bruno, who then becomes so devastated and depressed that he attempts
“carbocide” – which is eating enough carbohydrate rich foods so that
he slips into a coma and dies.
Thankfully, his trusted sidekick Lutz saves him before its too
From here on
BRUNO’s satire goes from being forcefully irreverent and into borderline
After realizing that some of the biggest names in Hollywood are
straight, Bruno makes one last attempt for the fame and glamour by
attempting to shed his homosexual lifestyle forever.
After a feeble stint in the National Guard does not work, Bruno
decides to visit an actual southern pastor that specializes in
turning gay men straight (to say that this evangelical looks like he has
no qualifications at all in performing this deprogramming is an
Following this Bruno decides to do some ruggedly manly things, like
hanging out with some red-necked hunters on a camping trip, but they are
seriously taken aback by all of his homoerotic comments (when he reveals
how all of the stars in the nighttime sky remind him of all of the "hot men" in the
world, it is accompanied by a silence that no staged comedy could have
mustered to such perfectly timed effect).
There are two
scenes in BRUNO that are entirely astonishing and unnerving.
The first of which occurs when Bruno attends a “swingers” party
of former gay men that have now hooked up with women (it is essentially an
orgy party) and the hypocrisy of these people utterly stains the
screen. During one instance Bruno asks one of the re-programmed gay
men to show him certain sexual positions that he could implore with woman
(and...yes...the gay-turned-straight man gets a bit too much pleasure out
The real epicenter of the film is a totally disturbing sequence
which shows why Cohen is arguably the most fearless and liberating comic
At this point Bruno has become a self-professed heterosexual cage
fighter named “Straight Dave” that comes strutting to the ring in the
heart of the Bible belt.
He challenges a spectator that calls him a gay slur, but when the
stranger enters the rings and Bruno realizes that this is a man from his
personal past, the two proceed to hug, kiss, strip, and renew their love
for another in front of the beer-chugging, gay-bashing, trailer park trash
To see the absolute disdain and hatred that some of the inebriated
hillbillies show towards Bruno here is appalling, if not scary.
There was a point where I actually thought that someone in the
crowd was going to climb over the cage and seriously injury the actor.
This sequence takes courageous exhibitionism to a whole new level.
Again, all of
these scenes – and the aforementioned one in particular – stand out
for how they say something essential about our debased, immoral,
shallow, attention seeking, and celebrity obsessed culture.
There is no doubt that BRUNO is a film that never knows when to say
"no" or to stop, but the mark of a brilliant satirist is when
they go for the cultural and social jugular of their audiences instead of
just sitting idly back and hoping to provoke a response.
The film never pulls punches in its quest for (a) making us laugh
uncontrollably and (b) exploiting its targets for maximum,
BRUNO is equally crude, profane, and uncompromisingly fearless in
its confrontational and incisive approach.
I think one of its thankless achievements is that the area between
what events Cohen and Charles staged and what is real is
difficult to disseminate (I do believe that the Richard Bey talk show was
orchestrated, but moments that show Paula Abdul, for example, actually
sitting on human furniture comprised of Mexican immigrants while the star
obnoxiously discusses her participation in charity work, seems eerily
I gave BORAT four
stars and was almost willing to give the same high grade to BRUNO if it
were not for one key and much publicized scene involving Bruno coercing
the somewhat elderly and innocently unaware Ron Paul. The politician
thinks he's involved an interview situation, but it degrades into Bruno
making sexual advances at him.
Paul storms out of the incident and can be heard yelling
“queer” off camera at Cohen.
Despite the fact that it's astounding that Paul seemed clueless
that this was all a stunt, the fact remains that I think Cohen’s
approach here was a bit too mean-spirited even for him (I rarely cringe
and nervously writhe in my theatre seat during a film, but I definitely
did so during this sequence).
Not only that, but BRUNO certainly has a sense of familiarity
in its approach compared to Cohen’s last effort (granted, it certainly
is hard to duplicate BORAT’s sense of spontaneity and freshness).
Nonetheless, I think BRUNO is a near-masterstroke comedy satire:
it’s squeamishly funny, unrelentingly bawdy and filthy-minded, and
storms over boundaries and taboos like they were going out of style.
Yet, its true achievement is that its comedy and commentary is
much more discerning and revelatory than most lay people
will give it credit for.
For a film to not behave itself as much as this one does for
nearly an hour and half and still manage to berate and mock the phoniness
of American social and celebrity culture with such a ravenous bite is to
Sacha Baron Cohen’s credit.