Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Bañagale, Josh Meyers
(Universal; US DVD: 10 Jul 2009 (General release); UK DVD: 10 Jul 2009 (General release))
Sometimes, the process is more interesting than the final product. Even the most mediocre effort—be it song, film, or novel—has a motive and a meaning to those who created it, and there are clearly instances where that impetus is more intriguing (and entertaining) than what’s actually placed before the consumer. Take British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest, Brüno. Based on the flamboyant Austrian fashionista character from his Ali G series, this clear gay stereotype is meant by its maker as a way of exposing homophobia, media mediocrity, and the insular world of haute couture and tawdry tabloid culture. That none of this actually comes across in the film is part of its failing. But to hear Cohen and his partner in queer mime, director Larry Charles tell it, the purpose was willing, but the execution clearly was weak.
You see, every scene in Brüno (new to Blu-ray from Unviersal) is meant as a commentary, an illustration of one of Cohen and Charles many scurrilous attacks on the vain and shallow world of celebrity—both real and phony. Like their previous smash, Borat, it is also meant as a means of exposing a secret world of racists, bigots, prudes, and perverts. But somewhere between the idea and the instigation, a connect was clearly missed. What ends up on the screen - slapdash, hurried, rambling - doesn’t mesh with what the duo discuss as part of their otherwise spellbinding picture-in-a-picture behind the scenes narrative as part of the Blu-ray bonus features. Sitting together in a small studio setting, the duo dish on death threats, legal admonishments, personal dismay, and the alarming idea that sexual preferences may be the last “legitimized” form of discrimination left in the world.
For those unfamiliar with the movie itself, Brüno follows the adventures of a deluded talk show host from Europe who loses his high profile gig when a trip to fashion week in Milan ends in disaster. Determined to be a certified A-lister, he travels to Hollywood to “become famous”. At first, he tries a different version of his gab fest. Unfortunately, American focus groups don’t cotton to its abject cruelty and full frontal male nudity. Next, he decides to do some charity work. Sadly, the PR people he contacts are more clueless than he.
Hoping to inspire peace in the Middle East, he travels to Jordan and tries to bring both sides together for talks. When that doesn’t work, he insults a local terrorist. Finally, after adopting an African baby, he gets a small amount of Jerry Springer-like success. Naturally, it doesn’t last. There’s also an on-again/off-again love affair with his doting assistant Lutz, an attempt to “turn straight” thanks to some Christian charlatans, and a last act ultimate fighting competition that ends up exposing Brüno’s true feelings about himself and life.
Unlike Borat, which tied a continuing story about reaching Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson as part of its narrative, Brüno is more a series of skits that never quite gel into something satirically sound. Even as Cohen and Charles argue over the various success rates of their individual vignettes, we instantly recognize the off-the-cuff, almost unscripted nature of the film. There are several times throughout the commentary when the pair stop the actual movie to elaborate on a particular problem (a failed reveal, an unwilling participant), and in those sequences, we hear about last minute meetings with writers and collaborators. Clearly, after the triumph of his previous effort, Cohen wasn’t capable of the same level of anarchic ambush as before. Everyone was out to ruin his good time. The more material they had to make up in order to compensate, the less like its far funnier predecessor this movie becomes.
Besides, there’s now nothing novel about swinging some toned body double’s dick at a bunch of dumbfounded US rubes. Part of Cohen’s problem remains his decision to go after the easiest targets imaginable. As he discusses the fear he felt spending an uncomfortable night with a bunch of gun-totting rednecks, he still takes the joke to its logical ends by paying a naked late night visit to one of his clearly intolerant camping buddies…and we’re supposed to laugh when the frazzled son of the soil goes ballistic. Getting a hillbilly to hate on homosexuals is a heckuva lot easier than finding unmarried cousins at a South Carolina tractor pull. If Cohen were really the “genius” everyone claims he is, he’d have found a way to turn the situation into something smart and insightful, to manipulate the hate into something truly hilarious. Instead, it’s predictable and painfully obvious.
Even the alternate/deleted/extended scenes argue for the cut and past path to a Summer 2009 release. We get weird little non-moments like the much publicized and ‘infamous’ LaToya Jackson segment. Tossed before the premiere because of a certain Pop King’s passing, the bit is so bland that it barely registers as anything other than filler. Other edited material maintains the same “who cares” response. Even Cohen himself will point out included elements that he feels really don’t work. For him, the run and gun nature of the production, rife with threats of arrest and deportation proved almost insurmountable. Had he and director Charles managed to make something great out of the continual chaos, we’d more than support the inconsistency. But all Brüno has is its hit or miss nature, and for the most part, the targets are too easy and often sideswiped instead of struck head on.
And yet the Blu-ray release is still a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Sacha Baron Cohen and his methodology. We see how he processes information, how he uses the whole spectrum of world and domestic culture to premise his often abusive burlesque. We sense how fearless he is and how calculated his brand of confrontational comedy can be. And he clearly has a talent for voices and attitudes. Yet none of its turns Brüno into a better movie. Indeed, whatever flaws the film had before—and there are many—remain securely in place, accented only by the occasional insightful supplements from those who aimed high and failed. There will always be those who appreciate what Sacha Baron Cohen stands for. Few in today’s creature comfort conformist society want to take on social and interpersonal stigmas and skewer their illogical philosophies. For his chutzpah, and admission to same, we applaud the man. For the so-so comedy that comes from it, the jokester jury is still out.