Status: In theaters (opened 7/10/09)
Directed By: Larry Charles
Written By: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer & Jeff Schaffer
Cinematographers: Anthony Hardwick and Wolfgang Held
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Bañagale
You can’t recreate spontaneity. This is something I’ve experienced in my own life a lot: this collection of people found themselves at that location and ended up having a great time, so at a later date somebody tries to get the same people in the same place, hoping to have another similar experience. But it never works out that way. By trying to forcibly revisit a scene that developed organically the first time around, you lose the very essence of what made it so magical in the first place. This is an emotional truth (one of many) that Adventureland absolutely nailed: the main character, James, takes a date to “park” under a bridge, and they end up really connecting and experiencing an eye-opening moment. Later, on a date with another girl, he returns to this same location, but the magic isn’t there, and the result is an awkward attempt at forcing a “moment” that never comes.
What does this have to do with Brüno? Well, the whole movie felt to me like Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles continually returning to the bridge they found themselves under with Borat, but never locating the same magic.
The problems start with the difference of character: whereas Borat was the naive but lovable foreigner who could coax people into revealing their prejudices by simply playing the role of the outsider, Brüno, an over-exaggerated gay stereotype, is abrasive and confrontational. He’s not so much coaxing his subjects into revealing their anti-gay prejudices as just going out of his way to piss them off. A lot of the bits seem like they’d play out exactly the same no matter which character you put in Brüno’s place. He goes on a hunting trip with some manly-men, and the real shock is how tolerant they are of his constant badgering. In the middle of the night, Brüno crawls naked up to one of the hunters’ tents, waking him up, and asking if he can come in. The response is surprising only due to how measured it is; it doesn’t reveal the guy’s homophobia, it reveals his desire to sleep without being disturbed. Nothing to see here.
Perhaps sensing that he wasn’t getting the kind of coverage needed from his interview subjects this time around, Baron Cohen makes Brüno himself the primary focus, opting to go for shock value above all else. This, too, feels overly forced, not unlike the decidedly unfunny style of “shocking” comedy attempted in Jody Hill’s recent Observe and Report. There’s a talking penis, a contraption similar to the “surprise” George Clooney’s character made for his wife in Burn After Reading, and a gratuitous sex scene with Brüno and his pygmy companion (Clifford Bañagale) which inspires more laughs for its use of black censor bars than for the acts depicted themselves.
The one section that stands out as truly shocking is when Brüno holds a casting call for a show that will involve children, and the extent to which the kids’ parents are willing to go in search of celebrity is appalling. (I think I might’ve been even more shocked by this were I not used to hearing tales of bad parenting on a daily basis from my wife, who teaches preschool in the city.) Even this, though, like the rest of the movie, feels obviously staged to a much greater extent than even the most contrived scenarios in Borat. This film’s worst such example, though, is its final scene, which I won’t give away here—it’s probably the only segment of the film not spoiled by the trailers—except to say that it provides a grand, final letdown of a gesture to a film that already seems beyond redemption by that point… and proves it to be so.
As I was just saying of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Brüno too feels almost like an attempt by has-beens trying to relive their previous glory—though I certainly hope that is not the case (with either film). There’s an extremely loosely-constructed narrative that follows the format of Borat all too closely, including a producer companion (Gustaf Hammarsten) who tries to keep the lead character on track. The various set-ups and sketches are edited together randomly, with nothing cohering one to the next. The movie’s ostensible goal is to expose some truths about our culture’s obsession with celebrity, but it goes about proving this point in the most subjective way possible, by having Brüno himself seek to become famous by any means he can. It reminded me a bit in this regard of Super Size Me, in which a guy who wanted to prove that eating McDonald’s makes you sick ate some McDonald’s and then pretended to get sick. There’s no insight to be gained from such a tactic, and Brüno provides painfully little humor as a fallback, leaving virtually nothing of note left to speak of.