Sacha Baron Cohen is back with his own brand of character comedy in Brüno, coming out July 10th.
The long and the short of this film is quite simple: If you dug Borat, you’re probably going to see Brüno and enjoy it as well. If Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy plays on your own prejudices, or if you have a weak constitution for sex and broad gay comedy, best to stay away from this one.
Part of the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy experience is seeing this movie soon after its release date in a theater full of like-minded fans. It’s not that the jokes themselves aren’t worthy of laughs, but fans of television in the 50s, 60s and early 70s know that Charley Douglass would argue that you’ll laugh more if there are others laughing around you. Plus, no one likes the one guy gaffawing all by himself.
Part of the group-mentality sentiment is my personal opinion. Reporting on film blogs during Brüno’s production meant that several of the sequences were revealed to me beforehand. It’s not that the film’s plot is important, but some of the more shocking situations in this situational comedy are best left discovered on screen. Sometimes I’d find myself chuckling along with the folks beside me during a reveal I was expecting to come along. Because of that, the review below will be intentionally vague about the punchlines.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno character first appeared on the Paramount Comedy Channel in 1998, soon followed by segments on the UK version of Da Ali G show (Brüno appears in the first episode of the American version and makes sporadic appearances mocking fashion and homosexuality through Season 2, episode 6). It’s safe to assume, with Borat and Ali G both retired after their films, that this will be Brüno’s farewell appearance.
The film picks up where the TV series left off, with Brüno still working for his fictional show Funkyzeit mit Brüno (Funkytime with Brüno), though after an all-Velcro suit incident goes exactly as wrong as it appears in the trailer, he is fired and dumped by his pygmy-sized lover (more on that later).
Without the popularity of his show, Brüno is left with only his assistant’s assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) who follows the wayward star to Hollywood where he plans to become famous.
Why Brüno as a film fails to surpass the laughs generated by Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has a lot to do with the nature of the character and the medium. As far as the construction of Brüno as a film, a lot feels familiar: we start with the character in his safe zone, reporting on fashion in Brüno and with the hilarious fake Kazakhstan village in Borat. Then, with a simple thesis about what America has to offer, said character is off with one managing cohort and finds himself in various vignettes as he attempts to reach a certain goal. In Borat, that goal was fulfilled with the attempted kidnapping of Pamela Anderson, in Brüno, his goal is to be famous.
It’s a similar structure on all accounts, right down to a sequence comparable to Borat’s naked wrestling where Lutz and Brüno find themselves in a compromising situation that eventually becomes a public one.
However, what makes Brüno’s jokes so much more dubious than Borat’s is the tonal shift between character comedy and the film’s subject matter. In Borat, it was the same thing: xenophobia. American’s don’t react well to foreigners, but we’ve at least gotten to the point where we tolerate them and their bizarre behavior. They are the “other,” they are not us.( Borat’s dinner party wasn’t ruined until he literally brought a bag of his own poo down from the bathroom.) In Brüno, the film isn’t about being famous, and it isn’t about homophobia. At least not as completely as one would hope.
Very early on in the film, Brüno and his tiny, man/boy sex toy have a sequence of gay sex sight gags that are hilarious. Though I’ve seen a champagne bottle inserted in a woman’s hindquarters before (thanks to some previous, pornography-related jobs), seeing it poured from a man still has the shock value. The sequence feels slightly out of place, like most of the scenes in both Brüno and Borat that only include two actors an no unsuspecting victims, but the sequence exists for a purpose: to make them so flamboyantly strange that they become “The Other.”
This is the Catch-22 of gay humor. Homophobia is subtle in most real-life situations. Much like it is preached in the South Park episode “Death Camp of Tolerance,” the basic tenant of tolerance is that you can go on not liking homosexuality, you just have to not like it in your head (and for God’s sake don’t legislate based on your beliefs). You don’t embrace it, you tolerate it. It’s when you find especially prejudiced people and shove a flamboyant gay guy in a room with them, or when you force middle-aged women to watch a video of a talking penis that you are guaranteed to get humorous and uncomfortable reactions, breaking through the threshold of polite tolerance. This requires a character so gay that he’s a caricature bordering on stereotype, and that’s Brüno.
(In no way do I think this movie is offensive to homosexuals. If anything, they will see the stereotype much clearer and realize what’s going on faster.)
When Brüno is riffing on being famous, the film plays fresh, even if it’s treading a little to close to Borat’s play on xenophobic Americans. You can tell a casting agent in the early part of the film is giving Brüno a break because he’s foreign and has a camera crew with him. It’s when Brüno discovers that “straight” people like John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kevin Spacey are famous that he decides to become straight and the film’s thesis changes ever so slightly.
Where as Borat gave his interview subjects enough rope to hang themselves, Brüno does a great deal as a character to break these people. In the end, their prejudice and homophobia peeks through, but often when the situation gets so absurd that anyone would crack and say something stupid. If I were to set up and interview with Borat, the excuse “he just doesn’t know any better” goes pretty far, but when Brüno shows up to train with the National Guard in Dolce & Gabbana, how does one not see that this is going to end badly?
The parts of the movie that really work, like Brüno’s swapped African baby, Latino furniture, a semi-frightening terrorist interview, and the film’s Straight Dave climax are largely not based on Sacha Baron Cohen playing Brüno as a one-dimensional extremely gay stereotype. Cohen makes reaction comedy where celebrities and normal folks do their best to be tolerant is the joke. The film slows down when we are assaulted with Brüno’s unrealistic collection of cliché homosexual traits.
Don’t get me wrong, Brüno is irreverent, sharp, hilarious and uncomfortable like it should be, but if Borat didn’t win you over with its singular of comic vision, this movie’s mixed collection of subject matter won’t make you a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen.
However, the majority of you will love it like I did, surrounded by an audience laughing so frequently that popcorn went uneaten and drinks were sipped quickly between scenes.