* * 1/2 / * * * *
In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen made monumental waves across American popular culture, capturing our attention in a heated discussion of what is satire and what is taste and what "Borat" was all about, culminating in a Golden Globe for Best Actor and an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. In his mockumentary about a naive, good-natured-but-ill-behaved Middle-Eastern immigrant searching for the real American character, Cohen rubbed his nose in some awfully brown stuff. By holding true to his chameleon-like ability to stay in character, he duped everyone from powerful politicians to "simple" Americans, from high class to low class in a dazzling display of Western hypocrisy. Borat ultimately put the "American is Number One" attitude on trial at the exact moment the 2006 elections shifted power to the Democrats in a nation-wide display of (supposed) dissatisfaction with the Bush administration's policies abroad. Of course, whether you buy into that left-wing idea or not is up to you, but in the post-9/11 environment of xenophobia and racial profiling, Borat showed us how afraid we are to emerge from our shell, and how the help we try to extend always seems to be for our personal gain (my favorite image from the film remains Borat asleep in front of the church, homeless and defeated, as dozens of Christians walk past him without so much as a glance, a brief moment that perfectly encapsulates the film's entire tone).
Now, Sacha Baron Cohen re-teams with "Borat" director Larry Charles to expand another persona from "Da Ali G Show" - Bruno, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion commentator - into a feature mockumentary. After being "blacklisted" by the Austrian fashion community and abandoned by his man-lover, Bruno travels to Los Angeles in search of worldwide celebrity. For the first forty minutes, Cohen and Charles seem on shaky ground: their film goes haphazardly all over the place as they explore various venues for Bruno to try and gain instant celebrity. With a chief interest in the "fakeness" of celebrities who jump on the world's latest bandwagon, and the intensity of media "whore-dom," Bruno's antics seem most bizarre and scattershot in these first segments, as if the filmmakers were looking for a path to take their film down.
Granted, there are some lovely moments. When CBS agrees to screen a pilot of his potential talk show to a focus group, only to find bits of erotic dancing (including a penis), a pregnant celebrity discussion called "Keep it or Abort it," and an exclusive interview with Harrison Ford (which is merely Bruno accosting Ford on the street, to which Indy Jones yells "fuck off!" and keeps walking), the group can only stare flabbergasted. Yes, it's bizarre, ridiculous, and offensive - but the implication is that it's only a step below our current celebrity talk shows, that regularly gossip and interrogate popular culture with a variety of bizarre sideshows.
Later, when Bruno "adopts" an African baby and tries to find other children to perform in a photoshoot with it, he interviews children's parents to shocking effect: one mother says she'll force her 40 pound daughter to lose 10 pounds in a week if it will get her the part. And when Bruno parades his baby on a talk show, it's wonderful to watch him turn the audience into an angry mob-sans-pitchforks.
But then other bits, like trying to coerce Ron Paul into making a sex tape with him, are stretched beyond thin and into cringe-worthy poor taste. It's hard to figure out what Cohen was even trying to tease out of Paul, or why he would keep the footage in the final film. All he manages to do is exploit and embarrass the man, making no real lasting comment on hypocrisy or intolerance.
But then, roughly halfway through the film, Bruno decides that in order to be famous, he must become straight (like Tom Cruise, he says). In the next decidedly hit-or-miss half of the film, Cohen plummets headfirst into a mostly-Southern and mostly-male world of rigid heterosexuality, where sex remains the final taboo. And Bruno, with his incessant flirtation, his intense sexuality, and his ridiculous outfits, is like a poison dart meant to be shot into the jugular of this lumbering giant. For if sexuality is still something to be hushed, Cohen seems to ask, where does that place HOMOsexuality, and why are we still hung up about it?
Of course, the basic argument against Cohen's approach (roughly similar to Borat), is how he can possibly expose ignorance or hatred when he's approximately embodying a set of stereotypes so outlandish and absurd it's impossible to take him seriously or imagine him as anything but inciting homophobia while exposing it. That would, of course, ignore a very strange truth of Bruno - that people believe he's for real. While more of the film is obviously staged than Borat, he still manages to wrestle bizarre, often violent reactions from his subjects.
But what makes Bruno harder to swallow is how forcefully misanthropic it can be. The beauty of Borat is the character's simplicity, how his soft naivete invites people to spill their intolerant views, how his backward philosophy somehow complements those he interviews, and how he slowly penetrates each situation to its breaking point. Bruno though, is much less gentle. He's always on the offensive, always pushing people - like a group of hunters - to their breaking point through an almost exhausting set of gay charades until all they can do is push back or sit in gawkish embarrassment.
The gags in Bruno are almost unforgiving. Their sheer conception and execution is like watching a tightrope walker sprint over a pit of fire. But like that stunt, it also incites you to close your eyes or wince in some kind of imaginary pain. Despite the enormity of Cohen's comedic talent and (depending on your view) genius, of which there is much, it's hard not to feel Bruno comes up a bit short. It's not a remarkable second strike of lightning because it doesn't feel as fresh or as all-consuming in its social penetration.
Cohen's ability to improvise and immerse himself in any situation and stay in character is stunning, and his ability to use a thick German accent and subtle plays in diction to alter the entire direction of a conversation is remarkable. He knows how to throw people off, and he knows how to turn situations to his advantage. But so much of his gibberish and word games feel left over from Borat, and even the episodic structure of small vignettes strung together by an imagined plot feels remarkably copy/paste (it comes as no surprise that the two films had the same set of screenwriters to fill in the blanks between the stunts). And while more of the film does appear staged, more of it also feels pushed past the point of extremity, begging the question, "did he REALLY do that?" In merely provoking the question, he engages the "mockumentary" in a way that invites those "in" on his joke to investigate how deep the reality goes. Of course, the turn-around to that question is, if the filmmakers are merely staging more of their film in order to get to that point of ultra-extremity, doesn't that render the entire point of the novelty moot?
For instance, when Bruno goes to a swingers party and wanders room to room, watching straight people have sex until getting roped into to an S&M encounter with a woman who beats him with his belt over and over, it's hard not to stare open-eyed at how bizarre sex can be behind closed doors, but it also forces us to think about whether he REALLY put himself in that deep (no pun intended), or if they were in on it. And if they were, does that deflate the humor?
While "Bruno" will most likely incite heated discussions in even the most devoted Cohen fans - issues of taste, of the realms of satire, of the film's accomplishments (if any), of what it all means, if Bruno has a hidden agenda or if it's really just a hollow shell of shenanigans - that still hasn't answered the question that should guide any review: is it good? And I honestly don't have an answer to that one yet. I can say that at the film's climax, Cohen unites his themes of homosexual hate and sham celebrity in a single public event so mesmerizing, so insane, and so uber-theatrical, so laced with deeper meanings about society that it brings the whole scattershot film together in one glorious moment.
While I'm inclined to say that I think Sacha Baron Cohen is a remarkably intelligent comedian, and Larry Charles is a capable director who together create a character so other-worldly, so impossibly unrealistic that he can only inflict massive chaos wherever he goes, I'm also inclined to say that Bruno lacks a funnel for its ideas, of which it has many. Cohen has taken a nutcracker to our society once more, but it's hard to see how deep he goes beyond posing the slightly obvious question that sex is simultaneously natural and kinky no matter who is doing it.
If it sounds like I'm being too critical of the jester, I both agree and disagree. I think Cohen's humor only invites the sharpest sociological critique, chiefly because he himself is so intelligent and speaks so eloquently (when he's not in character) about the issues he tries to bring out in his work. Beyond knee-jerk disgust or nervous laughter, "Bruno" should be used as a volatile tool to talk about cultural issues, perhaps most especially in the mere design and employment of sexuality as an accessory. But while *conceptually* I feel the film is keyed into a lot of important ideas, the *film* as a product doesn't match up, going for broke instead of giving more food for thought.
Perhaps Cohen felt too pressured to push his material, or to press the boundaries of his own audience - who smugly laugh since they "get" it. But by squeezing America's nuts this hard, he produces a lot of shock without enough awe.