by Mel Valentin
When word hit that British comedian-actor Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles were going to follow up "Borat," a mock-shock documentary that scored big with critics and even bigger with audiences three years ago, with "Brüno," a variation on the same format, but with Brüno, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista (played by Cohen, of course), in the lead, anticipation ran high among Cohen’s fans and critics that he’d train the same cutting satire to homophobia and celebrity culture in the United States and elsewhere. While " Brüno’s" satire is often dead-on in its skewering of homophobic attitudes and our celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s also less consistently outrageous or funny than "Borat" was three years ago.Like Borat, Brüno isn’t a character; he's a caricature, an amalgamation of stereotypically gay traits and tics. Brüno is relentlessly shallow, none-too-bright, and culturally insensitive. He’s a libido-driven gay stereotype so extreme that only exists (or should only exist) in the fevered imaginations of rabid homophobes. Driven by a seemingly unquenchable thirst for recognition (or more accurately, notoriety), Brüno, the host of a little-watched Austrian fashion show, travels to Milan for fashion week where he attempts to debut his all-Velcro suit. It all turns out disastrously, of course. Banned from the remainder of fashion week activities, Brüno learns that his fashion show has been cancelled. Not surprisingly, his vapid lover leaves him for greener pastures. On the advice of his sycophantic assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), Brüno decides to give up fashion reporting and become a celebrity (i.e., someone famous for being famous). What better place to become a celebrity than the United States, right? Right.
"Not the zeitgeist flick everyone thought it was going to be."
Brüno and Lutz fly to Los Angeles where, in short order, Brüno gets an agent, gets on a network television show as an extra (and, unsurprisingly, gets quickly thrown off the set), interviews Paula Abdul in a rented LA home literally on the back of the Mexican gardeners, focus groups a talk show to, unsurprisingly, once again, disastrous results (much penis is shown to the shocked focus group attendees), decides to become famous by adopting an African infant (Chibundu and Chigozie Orukwowu), who he promptly names O.J., shows up at a Dallas talk show, child in hand, and proceeds to rapidly insult the primarily African-American audience, and when that fails, decides to go “straight” (as in “pray the gay away” straight) and engage in heterosexual activities like joining a swinger’s group for a night, joining the National Guard, hunting (in the Deep South), culminating with the unveiling of his new persona, “Straight Dave,” at a mixed-martial arts event in the reddest of red states, Alabama.
Going as far as his audience (or rather unwilling victims) allow is all part of Cohen’s shtick, regardless of what guise he’s wearing (e.g., Ali G, Borat, or Brüno). What sets Cohen apart from other shock comedians is his ability to peel back the layers of hypocrisy, prejudices, and biases in his onscreen victims to reveal the sordid ugliness underneath their seemingly “normal” (“normal” being a relative term, of course) exteriors. Cohen’s brand of comedy also makes moviegoers his willing co-conspirators, since we’re clearly asked to laugh at his victims, not with them (it’s usually well deserved). The bordering-on-violence reaction of his unwilling victims is also part of what makes Cohen’s comedic caricatures inherently watchable. Given that, it’s remarkable Cohen has managed to escape relatively unscathed from these encounters, especially given Brüno’s (and, before him, Borat’s) escalating behavior.But if "Brüno" proves anything (or maybe it doesn’t prove anything at all), it’s that shock comedy has its limits. Some moviegoers, regardless of their sexual orientation, will be offended or even repulsed by Brüno’s antics, but that’s what Cohen, his director Larry Charles (who also directed "Borat," and their producers want. On another level, however, when the aim is to offend and repulse, increasingly outrageous antics can and often do lead to rapidly diminishing returns, as it does here. "Brüno" doesn’t so much build toward some grand outrage (and accompanying message about tolerance), so much as repeat Brüno’s scattershot obnoxiousness a seemingly endless loop, with the Deep South and its backwards attitudes toward gays (well, flamboyant, cock-in-your-face gays who only exist in the fevered minds of unreconstructed homophobes) as the primary target.
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originally posted: 07/10/09 04:39:13