Oh boy – here we go again.
It’s been a little less than three years since UK trickster Sacha Baron Cohen has been out of the cinematic limelight, and the world has actually been better for it. For everyone who thought his ambush comedy Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan would reset the standard for big screen satire, the Apatow based truth is tough to swallow. Indeed, Cohen’s creative bent, which basically mandates that real people interact with his over the top, politically incorrect conceits, dissipated along with the mainstream fortunes of Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, and the rest of the similarly styled Jackass crew. And while the Brit wit has been off manufacturing his next film, the world of humor has stumbled over into frat boy bromance territory masterminded by the Freaks and Geeks guru and his FoA pact.
All of which leaves the fortunes for the upcoming Brüno (also given an unwieldy subtitle – Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt) up in the air. Taking another character from his Ali G Show and sending ‘him’ off into the straits of Bible Belt America may seem like something clever, but let’s not forget the love it/loathe it revisionism that faced the comic’s previous character from Kazakhstan. While funny, it wasn’t the full blown rewriting of the laughfest rulebook that many felt it would be. In fact, some saw this emperor as half-dressed the first time around. They continue to wonder how long it would be before the rest of the faux funny business façade would drop off and disappear.
One look at the ersatz ribald “Red Band” trailer for Brüno indicates that said designer duds are now indeed just a birthday suit. As he did with race in Borat, Cohen attempts to turn gender equity and lifestyle choice into the savage social commentary with unlikely everyday Americans (and occasional oddballs) taking the brunt of his brutalizing. Homophobia is played up, as are any issues involving masculinity, machismo, and manliness. Cohen is shown attending self defense classes, asking how the nonplused instructor would defend himself against dildos. There are also moments of man-on-man action, full frontal nudity, and the always surreal setting of fashion shows and the accompanying Weeks in both New York and abroad. Probably the most controversial moments occurs when Brüno “adopts” an African baby. As a crowd of startled individuals look on, Cohen commences to throw every racial stereotype onto the fire as fuel for the crowd’s increasing rage.
Scandal is nothing new for Cohen, or for Brüno for that matter. There have been reports during production of fights with designers, near arrests, ruined bits (mostly because of the actor’s new higher profile), and an overall inability to fool all the people all the time. Then, a little over two weeks ago, the MPAA slapped the film with the commercial kiss of death known as an NC-17. One assumes it’s for sequences like the one which has a couple of half dressed gay men “making out” in front of a group of flabbergasted rednecks. Naturally, such a judgment is being used to Brüno’s advantage. Director Dan Mazer (a Borat vet, stepping in for an MIA Larry Charles) has stated that, while he will edit the film to meet the MPAA – and studio – mandates, the “Unrated” DVD will be ‘amazingly awesome’.
Still, all of this pre-publicity (the film doesn’t hit theaters until 10 July) begs a certain question regarding content, to wit – are people really interested in seeing this kind of comedy once again? For all its oversized (and since recanted) praise and box office conquering, Borat succeeded primarily because there was nothing like it before. No one had attempted to mesh reality with fiction in such a massively mock documentary design. Sure, there was a Candid Camera type quality to what Cohen and company were doing, but they never made any bones about the individuals in the lens. The people the production interacted with were fooled, but the lack of any ‘hidden’ facet meant they were unknowingly complicit in the ruse. By the end, when the film was raking in the cash, lawsuits came, but not because the plaintiffs had an actual case. As with most participants left outside of success, they simply wanted a piece of the pie.
And yet Cohen hasn’t really tried to broaden his comedic perspective here. This looks like Borat recast in mincing metrosexual satire. Laughs are supposed to come from bigots staring bug-eyed as Queer Nation makes its musky, man-love stand. At least our Kazakhstani reporter had some old school superstitions (the entire “gypsy tears” routine) to expand its scope. One fears that Brüno won’t be able to move beyond its basic one note ideal. No matter the character’s status as a Euro-trash fashionista, there is only so much one can do with sexuality. After a while, the gags become obvious and labored. Indeed, watching the Red Band trailer, one senses that this will feel like a TV length sketch stretched to movie size sameness.
When he appeared in Tim Burton’s brilliant take on Stephen Sondheim’s majestic Sweeney Todd, many argued that Cohen was finally embracing his undeniable talents and moving beyond the ‘gotcha’ groove that brought him to the forefront of fame. Even with Brüno on the horizon, they sense the actor/comedian’s desire to break free from the self-made mold and expand his cinematic status. Here’s hoping that with the final aspect of his Ali G Show finally making it to movie screens, he’ll drop the ‘madman on the street’ shtick and really trade on his seemingly remarkable skills. In some ways, Sacha Baron Cohen is indicative of the British post-modern ideal of wit. Like Russell Brand, or Ricky Gervais, they will take a certain type and basically beat it into the ground until audiences and admen are sick of it. Brüno will truly test whether Cohen can continue on this path. Here’s betting that, come August, he’ll be gratefully going in a different direction.