[10 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I am tired of all the “social commentary” accolades. I am fed-up with the entire “holding a mirror up to homophobic America” excuses. As I was when Sacha Baron Cohen arrived on these shores with a movie made from his hit HBO TV series, I am still not convinced he is the future of comedy. He did indeed change the face of post-modern humor—over to Judd Apatow and the gang. Now the man who made Borat an adolescent after-party merriment (and in turn, banked a few million bucks in the process) is back, ready to redefine funny business once again (I hope the cast of The Hangover is paying attention…). This time around, it’s gender politics that’s getting the ribbing, and like my last run-in with a British comic as faux foreign correspondent, Brüno is far from brilliant. Indeed, it’s a one note movie that forgets said message early and often.
Clearly cobbled together after an initial approach didn’t work (got to give the fashionistas credit - they saw through Cohen’s ruse rather quickly) the four credited screenwriters return the narrative right back to Borat country, bringing Austria’s favorite TV boy toy to the bigoted US of A to see if lightning strikes this particular ambush angle another time. In what passes for a plot, Brüno is blackballed by the entire European media, unable to get a job after ruining a runway show with his Velcro suit. Setting up shop in LA with his sycophantic manservant Lutz by his side, he is desperate to be famous again.
He hopes to strike a deal for his own celebrity gossip show. When a focus group is less than enthused with his gay-bating gall, he tries to make a sex tape. After that, he goes charitable and adopts a baby from Africa. After a misguided talk show appearance, he is left with only one choice - go “straight”. Seeking the aid of a Christian ‘converter’, Brüno tries to fit in with a group of rednecks. Eventually, he realizes that his fawning assistant Lutz really does care about him. They go off to get married, secure in their belief that love will find a way.
Now, are you laughing yet? Does the plot description make you giggle uncontrollably? If not, you’re going to have problems with Brüno. This is a movie that relies more heavily on story than the “stop and shock” antics as before. There is clearly more scripted material here, attempts by Cohen and the rest of the cast to raise eyebrows by bringing gay life and its many sexual components to the mainstream. This is a movie obsessed with dicks—full frontal and blacked out, anal and oral acts simulated in order to give Joe Sixpack and his adolescent complements a couple of awkward orientation heart attacks. If you’re naïve, in high school, or a dedicated follower of scatology, you’ll think this is genius. Anyone with world experience, however, will feel left out of the loop.
That’s because Brüno never rises to Cohen’s previous levels of truth. When Borat challenged people on their racial or cultural biases, he did so knowing that real reactions merit the biggest laughs. But as we sit through a sequence where desperate stage moms (and a dad) agree to exploit their children for a shot at stardom, the joke is on our lead. All he has to do is watch an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras to see he is years behind the curve in mocking the “anything for fame” mindset. It’s the same when Brüno calls his agent while getting his ass waxed and his anus bleached. We are supposed to snicker at the entire set-up. But outside of a few backwater burgs in the Bible belt, these are subjects spoken about regularly on cable channels like E!
Borat had “gypsy tears” and the whole “stranger in a strange land” strategy. Brüno avoids any such outsider conceits. Our homosexual hero believes he is a player, an icon waiting to be discovered by a populace too dumb to see how fabulous he really is. So how, exactly, does the scene with two incredibly ditzy charity PR gals aid in that intention? Sure, it’s sadly comical, especially when you realize that these bimbos are probably bringing home more money than most hardworking, INTELLIGENT citizens make in a lifetime, but Brüno himself is not sparking their stupidity. Instead, he’s a passive provocateur. He just shows us and lets them destroy their credibility in one amazingly empty-headed example of career suicide.
In truth, Brüno is nothing but 82 minutes of genitals. Its makers want to believe that the sight of a male penis bopping around in extreme close-up will have you rolling in the aisles - and if you are 14, and inexperienced in the ways of the reproduction, it just might. This is a movie that needs you to be as unsophisticated and clueless as the “targets’ being skewered in order to appreciate the “satire” being shoved at the screen. As the line between what has been staged and what is “true” gets blurred and then completely forgotten, all meaning is sapped out of the material. Even the finale, which could have accurately riffed on the overridingly homoerotic nature of mixed martial arts is, instead, another showcase for Cohen to personally “push the envelope” as a performer.
As with all comedy, laughter is subjective, but at this point in the Borat/Brüno game, I’m out. I’m smarter than the people he mocks. I’m too sophisticated to view “found” humor as anything other than an accident. I don’ drape myself over the latest fad and flaunt it as the second coming of anything…and I definitely didn’t buy into the hyper-queer context Cohen was issuing. If I want broad, over-the-top stereotyping laced with genuine comic gold, I’ll dig into my DVD collection and throw on Pink Flamingos, or even better, John Waters’ brilliant deconstructionist camp classic Female Trouble. Ridiculing American rubes is like shooting dead, motionless fish in a barrel filled with Jell-O. The only “genius” involved is getting the public to buy it as scandal. Sacha Baron Cohen has managed that box office bait and switch before. Me? I’m over it.