Movie Review: Is Bruno really so 2009?
If Borat was so 2006, does Bruno live up to all the hype and expectations three years later? By Andrew Paredes
Having watched–and adored–2006's Borat, let me tell you that having seen that revolutionary mockumentary is both a blessing and a curse to anyone who will troop to the cinemas this weekend to watch Bruno, in which the fearless comedian Sacha Baron Cohen lobs a grenade at celebrity culture and homophobia using the persona of a very gay and very fame-hungry Austrian fashionista. If you haven't seen that eye-opening, gut-busting masterpiece in guerrilla satire, then Bruno might be a bit much to take. If you have…then Bruno might feel like a letdown.
Not to say that the premise isn't deliciously wacky: After wreaking havoc in a fashion show with his Velcro suit, Bruno is kicked off the Austrian talk show he is hosting, Funkyzeit. With his besotted assistant's assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammersten) in tow, Bruno decides to conquer the world by way of Los Angeles, trying every trick he can think of to gain the global notoriety he craves: pitching a celebrity talk show to the American networks (which gets him a "F–k off!" from Harrison Ford); espousing a cause (which leads him on a trip to "Middle Earth" trying to broker an instant peace between the Israelis and Palestinians); adopting an African baby (like his idols Angelina and Madonna); and finally, trying to become straight.
Not to say that Baron Cohen isn't committed to his over-the-top persona (who insists on referring to himself in the third person). You can trace a straight line from Richard Pryor to Howard Stern to Baron Cohen–they're all comedians who aren't afraid to demolish the line between funny and tasteless, who revel in our "boos" as much as our applause. But it seems only Baron Cohen is willing to risk life, limb, and reputation for the sake of a joke. (At one point, he is chased down the street by a Hassidic scholar for his scandalous style; at another, his camera crew seems to be in danger of getting strung up Deliverance-style during a camping trip in the Alabama woods.)
Having said that, Bruno feels like it's treading over ground Borat has already staked out. This latest ambush on modern society's fake tolerance (while still being madly closeted) doesn't feel incendiary enough.
I'll award some bonus points for the fact that the MTRCB has a maddening habit of "recommending" cuts for potentially offensive bits, even though the movie's R-18 rating implies that everyone sitting in the cinema is an adult who can make up their own mind. Despite the clumsy cuts, it's clear that Bruno makes mincemeat out of celebrity culture…but really, fashionistas/fashion victims who define themselves by how many times their faces appear in the society columns are easy targets for satire. Especially for a comedian who's already skewered evangelists, feminists, and career politicians.
It's in the more controversial issues where Bruno pokes and pokes… and then inexplicably pulls its hand away. Bruno is hilarious when he's simultaneously sending up homosexual stereotypes while rubbing our faces in his persona's unapologetic sexuality. (Watch out for that sequence where he mimes oral sex with the deceased half of Milli Vanilli.) But when he decides to go straight, the movie falters. When Baron Cohen quizzes an evangelist who's a self-touted "gay converter" and gets him to declare, "There's nothing like building your muscles around other men…who aren't gay," I was waiting for a hidden-camera infiltration into one of those notorious gay-to-straight evangelical camps. Instead, Baron Cohen goes for the predictable marks: a hunting trip with macho hunters and a stint in army boot camp. Basically, I was waiting for more.
Borat's plot also felt more organic, the hand of its creators (Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, with whom he has reunited for this second outing) relatively unseen. Where the clueless Kazakh journalist really seemed to be wandering the cultural and moral wasteland that is the American heartland, coming upon his nuggets of comedy serendipitously, Bruno's nominal plotline feels like an enforced structure on what's meant to be another picaresque journey.
Borat may have been so 2006. But its brand of comedy–how it held a funhouse mirror up to our distorted values, tickling and disturbing us at the same time–will remain a classic. As it stands, I can't help but feel that Bruno is blowing smoke up my arschenhaller.