A film review by Craig J. Koban July 23, 2009

Brüno jjj

2009, R, 82 mins.

Brüno: Sacha Baron Cohen / Lutz: Gustaf Hammarsten

Cameos: Paula Abdul, Harrison Ford, Ron Paul, Bono, Chris Martin, Elton John, Slash, Snoop Dogg, Sting.

Directed by Larry Charles / Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer and Jeff Schaffer

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 in America.  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. 

That’s the 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 celebrity culture.   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 America.  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.”  

They do. 

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 insults.  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 late. 

From here on BRUNO’s satire goes from being forcefully irreverent and into borderline creepy territory.  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 understatement).  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 of this).  The real epicenter of the film is a totally disturbing sequence which shows why Cohen is arguably the most fearless and liberating comic minds around.  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 crowd.  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, squirm-inducing effect.  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 real). 

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.   

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