TEUTONIC FASHION PLATE FLAUNTS HIS UMLATS
By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times, 7/10/09
In his various incarnations — Ali G, Borat and now, at feature length, Brüno — Sacha Baron Cohen leads his audience in a two-step of squirming discomfort and smug affirmation. Like “Borat,” “Brüno” (Mr. Baron Cohen’s new vehicle, also directed by Larry Charles) offers both succor and sucker bait for liberal-minded viewers who may feel harassed and hemmed in by prevailing and ever-shifting cultural sensitivities.
We all know, for example, that it’s wrong to laugh at foreigners, that making fun of their accents and customs is worse than passé. But Borat, with his outlandish attitudes and offensive behavior, granted an exemption to anyone who was in on the joke. You could titter and guffaw at his backward, ignorant buffoonery because, of course, the real xenophobes were the people on screen who fell for the hoax that this guy was a journalist from Kazakhstan.
They — Americans just like you but of course nothing like you — were exposed as bigots either for being outraged at the things Borat did or for politely agreeing with his misogynistic, anti-Semitic or otherwise objectionable statements. Any twinge of guilt you might have felt on behalf of the actual glorious nation of Kazakhstan was quickly soothed by the spectacle of American intolerance and idiocy that “Borat” purported to expose.
In “Brüno” the main character’s foreignness — he’s from Austria, identified as the land of Hitler but not of Wittgenstein, Schwarzenegger or Freud — is at once amplified and trumped by his homosexuality. Brüno, a strapping fellow with good cheekbones and an obsession with high fashion, minces and swishes his way from Vienna to Los Angeles and then makes improbable and sometimes very funny excursions to Africa, the Middle East and the American South. Wherever he goes his bizarre fashion sense and his utter lack of inhibition elicit raised eyebrows, angry scowls and occasional bursts of full-blown rage. (One of them comes from Representative Ron Paul, the former Republican presidential candidate, who is unwittingly cast in a Brüno sex tape.)
The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. An early sequence that graphically shows Brüno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher and a specially modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently weird, gross and comical. The same sequence with a man and a woman — or for that matter, two women — would play, most likely on the Internet rather than in the multiplex, as inventive, moderately kinky pornography rather than as icky, gasp-inducing farce.
But anyone made uncomfortable by Brüno’s extravagant incarnation of a silly, retrograde stereotype of gayness may be relieved and amused to see the panic and confusion he causes in others. And it is of course these others —mainly white Southerners, with a mostly African-American talk-show audience thrown in, perhaps for balance — who are the real targets of the film’s humor. Mr. Baron Cohen and Mr. Charles’s search for ugly Americans yields a meager bounty compared to “Borat,” partly because the success and notoriety of that movie diminished the ranks of potential patsies. This time the filmmakers went to Alabama and Arkansas, set up a barrel with a “Free Fish Food: All You Can Eat” sign, and blasted away.
Sometimes their aim feels true, as when Brüno visits a minister who tries to counsel him toward heterosexuality. And another encounter, with a group of straight swingers, yields some fascinatingly queasy and hilarious moments. But the climactic set piece — a he-man cage match orchestrated to turn into a man-on-man sex show and an antigay brawl — feels both strained and a little too easy.
It’s not all that hard to find people in America who will expose their fear, ignorance and hatred on camera, as anyone with access to YouTube during the last presidential election knows. Derision, though, is not the same as insight, and “Will you look at those dumb rednecks” is not much of a punch line.
“Borat” presented itself as “Cultural Learnings of America,” but as Mr. Baron Cohen has spun himself into something of an entertainment franchise his curiosity has waned along with his satiric daring. In America as seen by Brüno there are, oddly enough, no openly gay people nor anyone whose awkwardness is likely to trouble the composure of the presumed audience.
It should be noted that Mr. Baron Cohen remains a brilliant slapstick artist and a master of voices — Brüno’s mock-German and scrambled American idioms are in some ways even more crazily spot-on than Borat’s gibberish — and a performer of no small discipline and physical courage. He is able to stay in character even, for example, when a naked woman is flogging him with a belt. But in spite of Mr. Baron Cohen and Mr. Charles’s high-level skills and keen low-comic instincts, “Brüno” is a lazy piece of work that panders more than it provokes.
The episodic plot — Brüno comes to America with a sidekick from home (Gustaf Hammarsten), seeks fortune and fame, encounters humiliations to which he is obdurately immune and achieves a redemption of sorts — is a photocopy of “Borat.” Like a thrift-store outfit “Brüno” is an ensemble of borrowings, mostly from wittier, more inventive movies. The vacuity of the fashion world was skewered to zanier effect in “Zoolander,” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” remains the definitive exploration of the collision between Teutonic sexuality and American mores.
What “Brüno” tries hardest to be, and fails most significantly to become, is a sendup of the empty vanity of celebrity culture. Brüno, in his quest for stardom, encounters and exploits bottom feeders, hangers-on and desperate aspirants for membership in the charmed circle of fame. “Will you look at those dumb losers” is the punch line here, and it sometimes elicits a spasm of shocked laughter.
Still, the arrow of satire flies straighter and lands harder when it is aimed upward, and poking fun at the powerful and the entitled is no longer something Mr. Baron Cohen is inclined to do. Why should he? He’s A-List all the way, showing some leg on the cover of GQ and able to wrangle the likes of Sting, Bono and Snoop Dogg into a music video tacked onto the end of “Brüno.” It’s a pretty clever bit — Snoop’s line about Brüno as “the white Obama” may be the funniest one in the movie — and all the musicians look happy to be playing along with the joke. Good for them. But the joke is on you.