At times, I can’t help but feel depressed when I look at the box office numbers for soulless cookie-cutter blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. There was a time when movies like The Godfather, The Exorcist, and The Graduate could become not only sleeper hits but outright cultural phenomenons. Adjusted for inflation all of those movies are within the all time box office top twenty. Now it seems like the only way to gain such cultural prominence is to have Madison Avenue flock people like sheep towards highly calculated products filled with shiny objects. It would be easy to dismiss these audience trends as the result of an ever more stupid society, but that’s perhaps a bit too pessimistic. The more likely explanation is the much talked about separation of pop culture into various niches, thus leaving no one project able to gain a mass audience. Why am I talking about this? Because one of the more refreshing exceptions to this trend was Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 satire Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Say what you will about the movie, but there is no denying that it is perhaps the best tribute to word of mouth, creative marketing, and genuine cultural adventurousness since the 1999 sleeper success The Blair Witch Project. I had a few issues with Borat, but these reservations were overpowered by the satisfaction of seeing something so original and unmarked-tested make $261,572,744.
Borat was a smart film that was completely willing to piss off, marginalize, and alienate its audience; I liked that a lot. Unfortunately, I think it also wasn’t as consistent as I perhaps would have liked it to be. A couple of the sketches in it like the Rodeo and the religious revival were great examples of dead on satire, but there were also some sketches felt like missed opportunities. For example, his interviews with Bob Barr and his trip to a confederate antique store were both rife for biting satire but instead they devolved into cheap physical comedy. Such inconsistency is perhaps to be expected from films like this which rely so heavily on improvised interactions with unknowing participants. Going into Cohen’s new film, Brüno, I hoped that he would have honed his act to perfection and delivered a film that was all killer and no filler.
The Brüno character was first introduced on Cohen’s HBO series “Da Ali G Show.” The character can bluntly be described as a flaming fruit. He embodies every stereotype people can possibly have about homosexuals: he’s sexually promiscuous, he’s effeminate, and he takes the fashion world seriously. He makes Liberace look like J. Edgar Hoover (okay, bad example). It’s a character that would be highly offensive to real life homosexuals if it was meant to be an authentic reflection of their community, but that’s not what he’s trying to do here, rather his goal is to make his victims really uncomfortable. The other major characteristic of the Brüno character is that he is astonishingly stupid and has no conception of reality. He’s someone who’s probably never read a single book unrelated to fashion and celebrity gossip. For example, his only understanding of Adolf Hitler is that he’s Austria’s biggest celebrity; everything else about him is incidental.
While the supposed goal of the “documentary” that the Borat character was making was to learn about America and apply the lessons to his home country, all Brüno is trying to do with his cross country travels is become a celebrity. It’s quickly established that he has no talent as an actor, so he quickly tries his hand at some of the stupider tactics used to gain exposure in the twenty-first century like adopting African babies, making sex tapes, and insincerely taking up a social cause. As you can probably tell, celebrity culture is a big target here. In fact Cohen probably achieves more to expose celebrity obsession than he does to expose the film’s more talked about target of homophobia. Particularly telling is a bit where Cohen is auditioning various parents who wish to involve their babies in a photo shoot. Brüno asks if they are willing to have their children in all sorts of outlandish and sometimes dangerous situations, and they all agree to everything he wants to put the children through, one even agrees to subject their baby to liposuction. One cannot help but wonder what dementia would lead these people to place their children’s fifteen minutes of fame out of the way before they can even walk.
Of course the homophobia angle is their too, but this is where Cohen begins falling into some of the traps he fell into on Borat. Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is the interview he was somehow able to get with Ron Paul (who should seriously fire his publicist). Rather than getting Paul to hang himself with his own words, as he did during the best moments of “Da Ali G Show,” he chooses to never even conduct the interview. Instead he lures him into a waiting room, drops his pants and tries to seduce Paul who proceeds to do what any reasonable person would do: he runs out of the room. Frankly, I think this might be the lamest gag Cohen has ever done in any of his projects. He does nothing to strike at Paul’s political positions (incidentally he’s one of the few Republicans who supports gay rights), he just pulls a sub-Ashton Kutcher prank. His work heretofore has succeeded largely because he focused on exposing what people are willing to say in front of very large cameras with the full knowledge that what they say may be aired in some capacity. As such his resorting to the use of hidden cameras here is particularly disappointing.
Another missed opportunity is an interview he gets with one of those crazy church people who thinks he needs to “reform” gay people. Done right this could have been the centerpiece of the movie, but it really amounts to little more than a framing device in the final cut. Bill Maher was able to get a much better interview out of one of these assholes in his documentary Religulous. Another missed opportunity was his interaction with a Fred Phelps protest which amounted to little more than him running passed them in S&M gear, a prank that resulted in a real interaction would have been preferable.
It should also be noted that this has some really graphic sexual material. The film opens with a gay sex scene that is so over the top that it makes the wrestling scene from Borat look positively puritanical. Hell, it even makes the puppet sex scene from Team America: World Police look subtle. Then there was a scene at a swingers club which featured unsimulated sex. The penetration was concealed by large censor boxes, but there was still it was clear what was going on and the scene ended with a long altercation with a dominatrix. How this material avoided an NC-17 rating I do not know. In fact I’m going to be very angry if the MPAA gives another Ang Lee or Atom Egoyan drama that stigmatizing rating after this. A lot of the sexual material on display seems to mainly be there to shock the prudes in the audience, and I don’t have a problem with that goal. It reminds me a bit of the controversy baiting elements that surrealists like Salvatore Dali and Luis Buñuel would add to their work to shock the bourgeois sensibilities of their audience. It’s oddly refreshing to see a mainstream movie that’s pushing the boundaries of sex instead of violence.
There are definitely highlights to Brüno that are better than anything in Borat: I’m thinking in particular of the baby interviews, an interview with an actual terrorist, a climactic scene in front of a crowd of really scary looking rednecks, and best of all a focus test of an absolutely bizarre television pilot. However, the film does not always reach these heights. In fact there are many more outright bombs here then there were in Borat, which oddly proved to be the more consistent of the two films. Also the plot that connects everything here is pretty much an inferior retread of the plot Borat used. So obviously this completely failed to live up to my dream of a Cohen film that was all killer and no filler. Still there is plenty to admire about Cohen’s work here. I think part of the problem is that the exposure he got from Borat hurt some of his opportunities. I can’t help but think that this would have been the better of the two projects if he had made it first. In spite of the problems I’m still going to recommend this film for the bits that worked. And let’s face it, even though we’ve seen Cohen’s work once before, his shtick is still fresher than 90% of mainstream comedies.
*** out of four