July 16, 2009

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Brüno (R)
Sacha Baron Cohen sees the male nudity of Borat and raises you some S&M garb and an umlaut in Brüno, another poke-the-dumb-yay-hoos-with-a-stick movie based on one of Cohen’s Da Ali G Show characters.

Brüno (Cohen) is an Austrian TV show host who wants to conquer fashion like that other famous Austrian conquered Eastern Europe (a comparison Brüno himself makes). But after an incident involving a Velcro suit at the Milan fashion show, Brüno is told auf wiedersehen by the European fashion establishment and decides to make his celebrity anew here in America. So he tries all the normal things: getting an agent to sell his celebrity interview show (his lone “interview” being with Harrison Ford, whose two-word reply to Brüno makes for a very short interview), making a sex tape (with Congressman Ron Paul, whom he confuses with RuPaul); adopting an African baby like Angelina or Madonna, and finally, when all that fails, “becoming straight” with the help of a “reverend,” the U.S. Army and cage fighting.

Brüno is being sold as a movie that bravely uses extreme humor (i.e. wieners and candid camera shots of a U.S. House member acting like a moron) to uncover homophobia in American society. The parts of American society the movie runs its exposé on provide for moments that aren’t just shooting fish in a barrel, aren’t just the barrel of dead fish predicted in last week’s Dork vs. Dork column but are fish sticks formed around bullets and then baked in the barrel. Really, the rednecks cheering on a character named “Straight Dave” during a cage fight are actually quite homophobic? How terribly insightful, movie. Finding homophobia exactly where you’d expect it — where’s the satire? And then there’s the question of Brüno himself — is he making the jokes or is the character’s over-the-top gayness the joke? I guess I’ll give Cohen the benefit of the doubt but the movie paints everything — gays, Americans, religion — in such broad, ridiculous strokes that the comedy is often as troubling as it is funny.

Which is not to say I didn’t laugh. The Ron Paul/RuPaul moment is a throwaway line but it’s funnier than the setup. There are plenty of fun sight gags centered around Cohen’s Sacha and little Barons — he is not a man afraid to show his bits in service of a laugh. There’s a running tale of unrequited, unconditional love by Brüno’s besotted assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), the very thought of which horrifies Brüno, who believes he deserves someone more handsome, more of a celebrity. This plot line offers plenty of jokes about Brüno’s own inflated view of himself. As does Brüno’s desperate imitation of celebrity culture, some of the greatest moments of which have to do with his attempt to find the next hot world tragedy, a la George Clooney and Darfur (the Darfive, as he puts it). It’s in these scenes (when he’s talking with the daft charity image consultant girls or interviewing overeager stage parents for a baby photo shoot) that the movie seems most on firm ground, most certain of its purpose. (The movie ends with a celebrity sing-along, “We Are the World”-style, that’s also pretty great.)

Sometime after Borat, Cohen was interviewed on the radio show Fresh Air, where host Terry Gross raised the specter of inevitable Borat knock-offs that would give lip service to parody to excuse mean-spirited fun at the expense of “real” people. (Some of the “real” situations in Brüno are almost impossible to buy and, even if they are some version of reality, come off as smarmy.) My biggest problem with Brüno — not my only problem with it but a big one — is that it feels like one of those knock-offs. It’s dumb and mean where it could have been sharp and funny — lazy where it should have been fresh. Can’t Cohen find Brüno some more worthy adversaries? Isn’t the slavishly edgy, celebrity-obsessed culture from whence Brüno came a better sparring partner than the desperate Bubbas who seem to be the butt of many of the movie’s jokes? (Not that, as in the cage fight scene, these yokels don’t occasionally participate in making themselves look like angry, ignorant boobs.)

So, some funny, some disturbing; a little “does thinking this is funny make me a bad person?” and some “does not thinking this is funny make me a bad person?”; a bit of wanting to call up one’s gay friends and relatives and apologize for going at all and a dash of wanting the guys who made gaggy noises at the guys-kissing scenes to sit through it again until they get the point (assuming there is one). And I’m not even done mentally processing the scene that involves an all-black audience at a Jerry Springer-like talk show. This movie leaves you twisted and uncomfortable and, like that episode of Seinfeld where everyone guiltily over-tipped the African-American waitress after talking about race, unsure of what a politically correct person is to think. And I suspect this is exactly what Cohen wants. It’s just not nearly as fun, as funny or as smart as when he first did it all in Borat. C+

Rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Directed by Larry Charles and written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer and Peter Baynham, Brüno?is an hour and 22 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Pictures.