So I’m going to start doing movie reviews here. Now that I have weekdays off I can go to matinees, so I’m going to try to do one per week. Don’t hold me to that though because there may be a week or two when I may be too busy or too broke to go to the local Bijou.
Make no mistake however, my dear fervent readers; this is all about you and helping you make good movie choices. It’s not at all about giving me an excuse to go the movies on a regular basis. No….
I’ll try to catch the movie that I think will be most interesting, thought provoking, and/or controversial for all of us, and I’ll try to catch it on its opening week, but sometimes I may have to catch up with something that has been out for a bit. So, first up: Brüno, Sasha Baron Cohen’s follow up to 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
One of the hallmarks of a great comedic actor is the willingness to commit; to do anything for the sake of the laugh. The laugh can be a cruel mistress, but she must be served without holding back. Think about Lucille Ball setting her nose on fire, Steve Martin carrying every item he needs in The Jerk, or Will Ferrell trying to be the most patriotic guy in the office on Saturday Night Live. They are not ashamed to be fools for the laugh, to be exposed emotionally or even physically.
Working without a net may be an overused cliché, but I can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor for what these comics do, and Sasha Baron Cohen takes this commitment to a new level. I may be in grave danger of being locked up by the metaphor police for this; but Baron Cohen works without a net, over a pit of boiling lava, with sharp spikes, and hungry crocodiles. How do the crocodiles survive in the lava? It’s a metaphor dammit, work with me!
Where other comedians act out their character’s antics in the relative safety of a closed set, Baron Cohen takes his act into the street and interacts with real people…who often come to not be very happy with the character he is playing. An example in Brüno is when he goes to Lebanon to interview terrorist leader Abu Aita and remarks that Osama bin Laden looks like a “homeless Santa Claus.” Abu is not amused. Baron Cohen’s brother Erran (who has written music for Sasha’s films) admits that he fears for Sasha’s safety during these episodes.
Once again, as in Borat*, Baron Cohen brings one of his characters to the US in search of…well, that’s the question isn’t it? In Borat, he was ostensibly in the “U S and A” to learn about it, but what he really seemed to be in search of was antisemitism, bigotry, and ignorance. Guess what? He found lots of it. Especially ignorance, not only in the people he encountered in the film, but also in many of the film’s viewers who went along with the idea that Kazakhstan was the same cultural backwater depicted in the film.
This time, as Brüno, he seems to be looking for homophobia. Once again, he finds it. In fact, the website Defamer gave the movie the Boratesque extended title Bruno: 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 .
The setup is simple enough. Brüno Gehard is the host of Austrian TV show Funkyzeit mit Bruno in which Brüno and guests discuss fashion and popular culture, this includes a segment detailing what’s in and what’s “aus.” Apparently autism is in “because it’s funny,” good news for those of us on the continuum. While taping the show in Milan during fashion week, Brüno has an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction and is fired from the show. After this rejection, he sets out for America to become a superstar.
The rest of the movie details his various attempts to achieve stardom, including making a TV show for US audiences (complete with a talking erect penis) that doesn’t do well with a focus group. We’re such prudes here. He also attempts to interview celebrities, including LaToya Jackson (although the scene was cut from the film after MJ’s death) and Paula Abdul. I’m trying very hard not to give too much away here, but all I can say is that it’s interesting to see where Paula Abdul draws the line about what to be offended by.
Offense seems to be the prime directive where Baron Cohen is concerned, his characters are over the top in both their actions and their stupidity, and the joke seems to be how far he can push people before they finally draw that line and decide to end the interview. The most successful scenes in the film are the times when people never do. At one point, Brüno is questioning stage parents about what they are willing to let their children do on film. Specifically with one mother he just keeps getting more and more outrageous with his suggestions – things which would subject a child to physical harm and/or a lifetime of therapy – and this lady hardly bats an eye. Sure, my precious angel will dress up in a Nazi uniform and push other kids into an oven. No worries.
Another funny scene is when Brüno decides that he needs to adopt a charity like other celebs have, but which one hasn’t been taken? “Clooney has Darfur, Sting has the Amazon, and Bono has AIDS.” So he goes to see identical twin PR and Celebrity Charity Consultants Nicole and Suzanne DeFosset and they discuss the matter. Brüno wants to know what’s going to be the next Darfur, “What’s the Darfive?” The DeFosset twins are hilarious, especially when they get around to endangered species. One of them actually says, “Hmmm, what animals are extinct right now?”
Further hilarity ensues as Brüno goes to Africa and brings back a baby (in his luggage), goes to a swingers party, and tries to become straight by interviewing an Alabama minister who claims that God can cure Brüno’s gayness. Pastor Jody Trautwein recommends that Brüno engage in lots of manly activities with manly men, so he ends up on a hunting trip with a trio of guys that look like they answered an ad for southern stereotypes.
Come to think of it, maybe they did. Baron Cohen and his director Larry Charles do very carefully manufacture these situations. Could they have kept in the film interviews with stage parents who were shocked by what Brüno was asking? Yes. Could Brüno have consulted with a more seasoned and intelligent PR consultant? Yes. Could Brüno have gone hunting with three of the millions of men in the South who are funny, insightful, and have all their teeth? Yes, but what would the point be in that?
Brüno will make you cringe, and look away, and yes, it will probably make you laugh. In my case, though, it left me feeling like I needed a shower. Even though in the end, Brüno triumphs and gets to make a music video of a song he wrote, I felt a sad emptiness.
Sasha Baron Cohen is an extremely talented actor and improviser, but this movie and Borat both left me feeling the same way. I believe the technical term is “yucky.” I just felt yucky. There was none of the catharsis that you get from a good drama or the uplift that can come from comedy, but maybe it’s wrong to expect that from scorched earth approaches to comedy like Borat and Brüno.
Maybe I’m expecting too much, but while good comedies make you laugh at the characters, you also laugh at yourself and what you may see in the characters. Baron Cohen portrays such an outrageous, over the top gay man, then shows his encounters with people carefully chosen to react the way they do. That doesn’t teach us anything about homophobia or tolerance. It just shows us a man who is willing to do anything, to humiliate himself and others with him to get a laugh. But it isn’t full bellied, from the heart, cathartic laughter; it’s nervous laughter, and in the end maybe that’s all we can expect from Mr. Baron Cohen. I can only hope that one day soon he will be able to put his tremendous gifts to better use.
* Cohen also made a movie in 2002 featuring his Ali G character, Ali G Indahouse, which I haven’t seen.