Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bruno Gets a Nisht-Nisht

Grade: B-

To be fair, I should tell you that I spent a healthy percentage of my time watching Bruno laughing. Maybe not Hangover level, but still, it did have a lot of laughs. If you respond well to crude and uncomfortable humor, you'll be in for a good time. Yet unlike Borat, I found the more I thought about what I saw the less I liked it, to the point where I questioned why I was laughing. So does it entertain? Sure. Is it a disappointment? Absolutely.

Now, Bruno doesn't disappoint solely for failing to live up to Borat's high expectations. That would be unfair. It disappoints for failing to even attempt it. Bruno's function isn't too different from Borat's - he's there to act dumb and encourage people to say stupid things on camera that they should know better than to do. Where Borat exposed anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and misogyny in average Americans, Bruno was supposed to bring out all the latent homophobia. But as easy a task as that may seem in a country that won't permit same-sex partners to marry, it somehow doesn't work out that way.

For those who didn't see him on Da Ali G Show or see any of the numerous trailers the past few months, Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen) is a gay Austrian fashion reporter, and on the show always played third fiddle to Ali G and Borat. But here he has the chance to shine, a chance he relishes more than the others. After being kicked out of the Austrian fashion circuit for a velcro-laced faux pas (the second time in a century Austria has banished its greatest citizen, he tells us), he comes to American in search of celebrity. Somehow that leads him from LA to the Middle East, Africa, and the South.

The unifying theme on all his anecdotal misadventures is that it's all about him. Whether in the multiple sex scenes full of inventively-used dildos or in his self-produced TV pilot (which prominently features a still shot of a penis), the focus is solely on Bruno. Which makes this one feel at times like a long SNL sketch. Crude sex jokes are funny to some extent, but they're also easy laughs. Borat's naked wrestling scene worked because it was unexpected and isolated. Bruno is more like an entire movie of naked wrestling.

Not to say that Bruno is completely devoid of Borat's more socially-conscious style of humor. Whether fortunately or frustratingly, it has some scenes of absolute brilliance that hint at the stronger movie this could have been. While many of Bruno's victims knew better than to take the bait (Ron Paul emerges unscathed), Paula Abdul was not so fortunate, humiliating herself by falling into Bruno's trap. You can also see Sacha Baron Cohen's glee behind Bruno's mask as he questions mothers about what atrocities they would allow to be committed to their babies for the sake of a photo shoot. Not to mention some hilariously bungled German (in which Brad Pitt becomes Bradolf Pittler).

You also have to give Cohen credit for being willing to go farther for his comedy than probably anyone else out there. In the course of the movie, he interviews an actual terrorist, lets a woman beat the hell out of him with a whip for a good 3-5 minutes, and repeatedly offends people carrying guns. He takes on anger, pain, and the possibility of death without ever breaking character for a second.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that he couldn't sustain the idea for the 87 minute running time of the movie. Maybe he's too well-known post-Borat to find as many people willing and able to fall for his tricks. Maybe he just had bad luck in the people he chose. But as for any debate about whether the movie is pro-gay or anti-gay - it's irrelevant. There's no social agenda here, just silliness. There's far worse things a summer movie could be. But from a comedian like Cohen, I expect better.

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