July 08, 2009

Bruno

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Bruno

COMEDY:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-07-10

Running Length:

1:23

MPAA Classification:

R (Sexual Situations, Frontal Nudity, Profanity)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten

Director:

Larry Charles

Screenplay:

Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer & Jeff Schaffer

Cinematography:

Anthony Hardwick, Wolfgang Held

Music:

Erran Baron Cohen

U.S. Distributor:

Universal Pictures

Subtitles:

Some German with English subtitles


Bruno allows Sacha Baron Cohen to bring another member of his rogues' gallery of misfits to the big screen. This is a worthy successor to Borat and employs the similar tactic of exploiting the stupidity, ignorance, and prejudice of Americans as a form of satire and social commentary. This time around, however, the formula is a little more mean-sprited than last time, and some moments of discomfort within Bruno result from a sense that the filmmakers are not playing fair. The spontaneity of Borat is largely absent and, although some sequences are undoubtedly unrehearsed, there are indications that some were staged. The difficulty in telling one from the other speaks to the craft used to assemble the production, but it also robs Bruno of a key element - the belief that Baron Cohen is using "real" Americans to illustrate his points. The "reality" embraced by Bruno is no less artificial than the one embraced by many so-called "reality" television shows. When it comes to making viewers laugh, however, Bruno hits a home run - provided the viewer is not easily offended. For Baron Cohen, there are no sacred cows and he sets out to shock those who profess to be "unshockable."

There's not much of a plot to speak of - just a loosely connected series of skits that allow the filmmakers to skewer something with a satirical knife then turn the blade in the wound. The title character (played as a gay caricature of the first order by Sacha Baron Cohen, a faithful big-screen re-creation of the TV personality from The Ali G. Show) is a fixture on the European fashion scene until a runway faux pas (involving an outfit from Velcro) leads to his being fired from the TV show Funkyzeit. Accompanied only by his faithful sidekick-assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammaresten), Brüno heads to America to become a celebrity. His attempts meet with failure. A TV show pilot featuring celebrity interviews and dancing penises is greeted with contempt. His goal of bringing peace to "Middle Earth" by fostering cooperation between the Palestinians and Israelis collapses when he confuses hummus with Hamas. Child Protective Services goes after him when he reveals on a talk show that he obtained his new "son" (given the traditional African name of "O.J.") by trading him for an iPod. Finally, defeated and bewildered, Bruno believes he discovers the one element missing from his quest for fame: he must become straight. To that end, he seeks out a "gay deprogrammer," goes shooting and camping with a group of rednecks, and attends a gathering of swingers.

To say that Bruno pushes the proverbial envelope is to understate the situation. The only things separating this movie from a hard NC-17 are some well-placed black rectangles that hide potentially graphic content. Even with that consideration in place, it's hard to imagine why the normally prudish MPAA did not slap this film with its harshest rating. An extreme pantomime of oral sex would normally be enough to prohibit anyone under 18 from seeing this with or without an accompanying parent or guardian. And that's far from the most outrageous scene in the film. When it came to matters sexual, Borat was hardly restrained or in good taste, but Bruno makes it look like a morality play with puritanical values. Some of this content is hard-core (in more ways than one). It is also at times laugh-aloud hysterical - funnier and raunchier than anything presented in the summer's surprise hit, The Hangover.

Baron Cohen has two obvious targets in the film, and he's not shy about attacking either. They are homophobia and the so-called "celebrity culture." The film is ripe with extreme homosexual stereotypes and much of its humor derives from the ways in which "normal" people react to the flamboyant Bruno. Some scenes, however, strike a wrong chord, such as one in which former presidential candidate Ron Paul is duped into participating in a sit-down with Baron Cohen that is a bait-and-switch for something sleazier. Watching this is uncomfortable in the same way it was uncomfortable to struggle through Michael Moore's unwarranted mugging of Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. Even the punch-line - that Bruno thought the politician was RuPaul (the drag queen) - isn't funny. Some of the satirical anti-gay material is so forceful that there may be members of the gay community who are turned off not so much by what the film is ultimately trying to say but the manner in which it goes about saying it.

Bruno's examination of America's obsession with the concept of celebrity is better realized. There's a shocking (real-or-not?) segment in which parents of would-be celebrity children indicate a willingness to put their children through inhumane treatment to get them "the part." It's hard to believe these interviews weren't scripted and/or staged, but I have a sick feeling they may not have been (although I'm sure clever editing was involved). Bruno's determination to become famous at all costs reflects a dark, twisted aspect of the national psyche about what will be sacrificed in the name of achieving Andy Warhol's 15 minutes.

Bruno is as extreme as it is because it has to go this far to emerge from the shadow of Borat. However, while Baron Cohen's second film succeeds in providing plenty of grist for discussion and more solid, gut-busting laughs than any other movie this year, it fails to deliver on the same level as its predecessor. It's unlikely that many who appreciated the un-PC content of Borat will be horrified by Bruno, but there are elements of this film that will generate a strong backlash among those who will see Baron Cohen as having gone too far and taken too many risks.

Ultimately, Bruno does what it sets out to do: provide social commentary through the most violent of guerilla tactics, camouflaged by waves of laughter at highly "inappropriate" comedy. Those who have seen Bruno's segments on The Ali G. Show and who have experienced Borat will not be overly surprised by where this movie goes, but the demographic is limited. There are those who will praise this as brilliant filmmaking (Baron Cohen is ably assisted by Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry Charles, who also directed Borat) and others who will demonize it as hateful, pornographic excess. Some, in fact, will use the latter reaction to justify the former. For my part, I was glad to find a movie that pulled no punches in its quest to generate laughter. For those of a non-Puritanical mindset, it's hard to deny that Bruno succeeds in being both outrageous and outrageously funny, and it's hard to damn a comedy, regardless of its faults, for those qualities.

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