Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review: Brüno, Ich am Colored Unsurprised, but Whateva

In college, I tore through the DVDs of Sacha Baron Cohen's slice of televised genius "Da Ali G. Show", and on those discs the brief Brüno segments were strangely my favorite. Here was a character with so much potential, i thought. You could use him to open up and expose everything in fashion, Hollywood, politics, religion, etc. On the show, particularly in the first season, he was a quietly flamboyant persona for Baron Cohen. Brüno was over the top in a way that allowed him to blend in with the fashionistas, and stand out in the day to day world. He also displayed Baron Cohen's clever, smart alecky, improvisational mind games to a tee. Unfortunately, like his mohawk, that was so 2000. The new Brüno is louder, cruder, more unapologetic, and basically Borat with highlighted hair and a penchant for tight shiny clothes and cramming objects up the rectums of himself and others. It might be the best documentary of 2009, but it's not quite the best comedy.

The film itself is almost identical to Borat in terms of sequence. Both films have a minimal plot line: Borat travels to America to make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan, Bruno hops across the pond to try and become famous after being ousted from his fashion TV show Funkyzeit in his native Austria. From there, hilarity ensues and for 88 minutes, the audience's eyes are wide as stunt after stunt is pulled that makes them sit in awe of the shameless, brazen, ballsiness of Sacha Baron Cohen. These are one take chances that frequently put him at more risk than a stunt double. But, back to the subject at hand, Bruno and Borat are remarkably similar. Without getting into too many details i can tell you that Bruno has an assistant, who he loses, and regains, but not before a bit of a wrestling match. Bruno has a down and out emotional breakdown. Bruno finds himself in racist, homophobic southern America. Sound familiar? It should. Watch the two movies back to back and count the ways.

The result is that Brüno, even as it's treading uncharted territory, feels a little stale. Baron Cohen, for being such a trailblazer, seems to have unwisely stuck to a formula that was so perfect the first time around it shouldn't be repeated. Of course, Brüno is still absurdly, raucously funny, and the spectacle is worth the price of admission alone. In the canon of humor in bad taste, Baron Cohen may have trumped John Waters while remaining poised, collected, and sparklingly upbeat. While i may not be your average viewer, it seemed to me that the moments that were the most shocking (frequently involving copious amounts of surprising nudity or sexual interaction) were easily executed and easily passed with a blink and twinkly smile from the elfin (and really, rather adorable) Baron Cohen before you even knew what hit you. The moments that were the most disturbing, just as in Borat, were the ones in which real people made real claims and were lead to speak opinions that are better left unsaid. At some point, a string of show biz moms and dads volunteer their children for the unthinkable (eating disorders, liposuction, virtual crucifixion, life endangering stunts, you name it) and there's a collective, noticeable hush that overtakes the theater. It's moments like these that make Baron Cohen's brand of social commentary work. In the middle of hilarity, there's the constant reminder of how horrible human beings can be.

Which leads us to the gay issue. I found, that with all the mixed uproar on the subject, that for me, the issue of Bruno's sexuality was neither here nor there. He is unquestionably, parodically gay, yes. There are several scenes, it's true, that for Middle America will reach dazzling new heights of offensiveness solely because they're rooted in man on man action, but I'm pretty sure they have to be there. That way, see, your reaction is part of the film's statement. Bruno needs to exist as caricature to illicit the sort of bad behavior from which the film's action is derived. Think of it as a science experiment, with a century of stereotyping as a catalyst for a startling chain reaction. I'm pretty sure Sacha Baron Cohen should have a team traveling across this country right now filming the reactions and afterthoughts of the average US citizen. That way we could witness the true results. On the whole, i would argue that as a film Brüno paints a rather complete picture of the negative aspects of our society that may be rooted in homophobia, but extends rapidly into issues of racial and religious bigotry, human cruelty, stupidity and decrepitude. It's a dangerous territory for a mainstream comedy. For the socially conscious it becomes rooted in deep discomfort, and while you may be laughing along, you may also find yourself totally horrified as you can't shake the nagging feeling that the teenager two rows back might not be traveling on the same wavelength.

Either way, the potential to open eyes is there. Try as you might, you can't look away. The narrative may need work and the structure could be altered, but the risk makes it well worthwhile. Just, you know, don't watch it with your parents.

3 1/2 out of 5.
See Wilde.Dash's reviews, and more, at The Lurid Beauty of Monsters.

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