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When Sacha Baron Cohen shocked movie goers with his 2006 release, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the faux documentary met its share of controversy with its scathing ambush-style comedy.  The question after the damage was done and lots of box-office money was made was how could Baron Cohen top himself?  Was this a hilarious fluke? How could lightning strike twice in the same place?  

Taking another character from the painfully short-lived Da Ali G show, Baron Cohen blasts the answer to those questions with a double-barreled shotgun of audacity and brilliance resulting in one of the most outrageous comedies ever filmed. 

Flamboyantly gay Austrian television host Brüno has made his last embarrassing gaffe on the German fashion programme, Funkyzeit Mit Brüno.  It’s just as well, because Deutschland was just too small a strudel stand to contain Brüno’s fabulosity; our young man has decided to go west.  Armed with his faithful assistant, Lutz, Brüno plans his rise to Hollywood über fame.  Taking pages from the biggest celebrities, Brüno hires an agent, makes the best of extra roles, attempts to recreate his German show for U.S. audiences, makes a special contribution to the Middle East peace process and adopts an African baby.  When all his efforts come to nothing, the fey fashionista is desperate enough to abandon his homosexuality, joining a sexual re-orientation ministry, the National Guard and a swingers’ club.  What price fame, indeed?

If there’s a comparison to be made, Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy is probably closest to that of Andy Kaufman.  In his early days in featured segments on Saturday Night Live, the public had no idea who the guy was and Kaufman’s odd and often obnoxious characters were accepted at face value.  Kaufman was often assaulted by the unaware rubes displeased to find themselves enmeshed in the comedian’s bizarre skits.  Going further than he ever did with Borat, in Brüno, Baron Cohen literally risks life and limb for laughs; disparaging Osama Bin Laden’s fashion sense to the leader of an extremist terrorist group, being chased down a street in Israel by a enraged mob of Hasidic rabbis who don’t appreciate his spin on traditional Orthodox garb and making passes at an unreceptive and well-armed bunch of good ‘ol boy hunters during his “straight” phase.  He endures being viciously whipped by a frightening dominatrix when he refuses to participate in a hetero orgy.  Baron Cohen even hazards a Secret Service-issued beat down and instant deportation after trying to persuade former Presidential candidate Ron Paul into helping him make the sex tape that will surely make Brüno a household name.

The amount of frontal male nudity and hysterical illustrations of gay sex (- hidden behind perilously narrow black bars) makes me wonder how Brüno got by with a mere R rating.  In Brüno’s world, the plentiful penises dance, do acrobatics and even speak - all in close up.  Even Brüno’s exercise bike multitasks in a very inventive way.  Who was asleep at the MPAA wheel?  The fact that Baron Cohen was able to get this stuff onscreen at all is an achievement in subversive genius.

Amongst the many topical sacred cows flayed in the film are the ruthless stage parents who, on behalf of their small children, accede to increasingly disturbing demands made for a photo shoot.  Immigrant day labourers cheerfully acquiesce to being used as furniture when Bruno fails to prepare for a day of celebrity interviews.  And then there’s the whole gay thing … The five-hundred pound gorilla of the film is our dashing protagonist’s unabashed, unfettered homosexuality.  Baron Cohen forces his audience to face any prejudices about gays by making Brüno’s in-your-face sexuality over the top enough to be a caricature, yet establishing that the campy, raunchy affect is simply who he is.  When Brüno is willing to give that up, it’s actually kind of sad, as is the unrequited adoration from his not-fabulous-enough manager/Guy Friday, Lutz, who gives up his life in Germany to support his spoiled, vain love.  If there is a moral to all Brüno’s debauchery it’s in its “be yourself” message, which is cannily applied paired with the well-worn “Hollywood is fake” homily.  Only the flash forward ending drags a little but makes up for the weight in the pure nihilism of exposing an extreme fighting audience to erotic sights they’ve never seen before as Brüno dramatically comes to terms with who he is.

What one must wonder after Borat is if there was anyone on the planet not clued into Baron Cohen’s approach of filming unsuspecting dupes and getting them to say or do things they’ll regret in front of millions?  That a Hollywood agent and indeed the entire set of NBC’s Medium wouldn’t know the star of one of the biggest blockbuster comedies ever made, despite his blonde-streaked page boy coiffure, seems a bit far-fetched.  I could say the same about Paula Abdul’s furniture-free interview (- and one with LaToya Jackson, later cut), but maybe in these instances Baron Cohen chose his quarry well.

Brüno is one of the most successful satires of Hollywood absurdity and the pursuit of celebrity at any cost.  Of all the film’s perversities, the ultimate one may be that Brüno will make tons of money for its Hollywood movie studio while thumbing its nose at the system the entire time.

If Borat had the initial spark of being the first project that exposed the world to Baron Cohen’s perilous brand of agit-comedy, Brüno is more cohesive, more envelope-pushing and overall, a funnier film.  So, we’re back to square one with Sacha Baron Cohen and wondering how, after the riotous, hysterical Brüno, he could possibly outdo himself once again?  I can’t wait to find out.



~ The Lady Miz Diva

July 5th, 2009





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