Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews

Sacha Baron Cohen in Brüno




picture - BrunoFilm Review

by John Topping

published July 12, 2009



rated R

now playing nationwide


Is the answer to straight America’s remaining problems with homophobia to shove homoerotic images in their face?  That’s a tough call, but it’s a hilarious experiment Sacha Baron Cohen is conducting that’s going on around the nation as we speak.  For the first time in American multiplexes everywhere, totally unsuspecting audiences – or in the case of those who are attending because they became fans of Baron Cohen’s previous outing, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, merely largely unsuspecting – are being subjected to homoerotically-charged full frontal nudity, large black and white (as in Caucasian and African American) dildoes, graphic simulated anal sex, and for-real guys locking lips with extra tongue on the side. 


It’s all in the name of comedy, experimentation, pushing boundaries, and exposing American attitudes about (mostly, but not exclusively) masculinity and homosexuality, (though he gives religion, racism, financial desperation, and other issues a good run for their money).  Sacha Baron Cohen is probably the most fearless and courageous [actor? / artist? / comedian?] since … well, maybe ever.  He is completely willing to place himself in physical (and often life-threatening) danger from mobs retaliating in unbridled anger.  It is almost on a par – perhaps it even surpasses – the antics of the Jackass films.  The biggest difference is that the Jackass guys put themselves in danger simply for the thrill of sophomoric daredevilry which, although amazing, rarely rises above the level of brazen stupidity.  The same could be argued about Brüno, but Baron Cohen tinges it (or drenches it – your call) with social commentary.  (Both films are extremely visceral experiences.)


picture - BrunoThe story, such as it is, and like Borat: CLoAfMBGNoK, is a mixture of scripted scenes done entirely with actors, scenes of interactions with real people who (usually) don’t realize that they’re being set up, and sometimes with a blend of real people and actors combined.  Brüno is a gay Austrian fashion maven with his own Austrian fashion TV program, which is the #1 rated show in all German-speaking countries aside from Germany.  A mishap at a runway fashion show (I was surprised to see a runway audience loudly boo him) suddenly renders him “out” (as in, not “in”) in Europe.  His solution is that he decides to go to America with the single-minded goal of becoming unbelievably famous, trying everything from hiring a manager to taking up a charitable cause to deciding to become straight.  And - unless you’re shocked to your core by the proceedings - rest assured, hilarity ensues.


Even those of us who have been fans of Brüno since the days of the classic HBO episodes of Da Ali G Show were unprepared for the level of outrageousness and confrontation that was about to be thrown in our faces.  The risk that Baron Cohen puts himself through sometimes outweighs the resulting comedy, such as Brüno’s interview with a (real, live, honest-to-goodness, bona fide) Mid-Eastern terrorist, who clearly wants to kill him at interview’s end and, one imagines, might well have done just that if not for the rolling cameras.  It’s not the only time the clueless (i.e., not in on the joke) spectators want to kill him or cause him physical harm.  Not by a long shot.  The fact that physical harm never actually happens is somewhat remarkable and, in a weird way, gives one faith in humanity.  (Actually, he is chased down the street by angry Hassidic Jews out for blood when he primps through their community sporting a gay version of Hassidic-wear; we never find out what happened because he runs for safety out of sight of the cameras).  It’s also cinema of the awkward and uncomfortable.  Sometimes what he exposes is an ugliness that isn’t really so terribly funny, but both riveting and appalling to watch.


picture - BrunoIt can be legitimately argued that the provoking Baron Cohen does is too easy.  Taking a black “adopted” baby to an all-black audience and infuriating them by having the baby wear a shirt that says “Gayby,” showing them pictures of the “father and son” covered with bees, or in the midst of other nude men in homoerotic positions, or with the baby dressed as Christ on the crucifix.  Going to an Alabama working-class event and turning it into an exhibition of gay making-out.  Of course they’re going to react negatively.  The surprise would have been if the reaction had turned out any other way.  Brüno has a way of assuring that half of his gathered audiences will walk out before the end of the show – and this will undoubtedly be reflected in the theaters showing the film across the nation as well as with the audiences on the screen. 


But there’s much to be admired.  In all of his work, Baron Cohen, no matter which antic he’s carrying out, and no matter which character he’s playing, must stay in character until the stunt is over, the cameras have stopped rolling, and no one is watching anymore.  On Da Ali G Show, Borat once drank to the point that both character and actor passed out;  then, amazingly, he came back to consciousness still in character.  With Brüno, he plays what is basically a gay innocent who is fully out of the closet and oblivious to the fact that the world around him doesn’t accept him the way he accepts himself.  But besides not hiding it, he flaunts his sexuality and all of its trappings with unabashed pride.  In other words, he plays the homophobe’s worst nightmare.  Rural and suburban America is just beginning to get comfortable with the idea that two men can choose to be together, and what they do behind closed doors is their business, no matter how much they don’t like it.  Now Brüno wants to show them what happens behind the closed doors, too.


There is immediate argument about whether Brüno advances the gay cause or sets it back.  Sacha Baron Cohen is straight, so it’s no foreskin off his one-eyed wiggly worm.  But perhaps there is something to be said for forcing people to face their fears (I moreso mean the movie audiences in this instance).  Devout religious people will find this to be the most blasphemous and profane film they’ve ever seen.  The hand of Satan is behind it, they will surely imagine.  A sign of the depths of depravity to which our nation has sunk.  But the whole point is to take the blasphemy and profanity and depravity to the extreme, to the borderline of taste (which it assuredly crosses) and sanity (of which Baron Cohen’s is questionable).  One might argue that once you’ve faced these fears, the worst of the tension is defused.  Then one may counter that it only reinforces the hatred and can conceivably incite an upswing in gay bashing.  Baron Cohen just throws it all out there – way, way out there – and lets the chips fall where they may.  For this reviewer, it was easily in the top 10 of funniest films I’ve ever seen.  I literally screamed with laughter and slapped muh knees.  Whether you cringe more or laugh more will be up to your own psychological make-up.  It is nearly guaranteed that you will do both.


johntopping @


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