With 'Bruno,' Sacha Baron Cohen Lowers the Bar -- Considerably
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009
"Bruno," the latest mock-documentary satiric ritual from comic provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen, may count as the summer's biggest misfire. Cohen made a huge hit in 2006 with "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which simultaneously scandalized and delighted audiences with its combination of eagle-eyed irony and flat-out physical slapstick. But if "Borat" was utterly of its moment in piercing American complacence and self-regard, "Bruno" seems fatally out of tune, with every staged encounter falling as flat as the protagonist's hot-ironed bob.
Like Borat, Bruno is taken from Cohen's TV program "Da Ali G Show." He's a gay Austrian host of a fashion show who, as "Bruno" opens, falls on hard times. An attempted fashion coup of a suit made of Velcro results in a disaster on the catwalk, and the hapless, lederhosen-wearing protagonist is, in his words, "schwartzlisted" from the industry. ("For the second time in a century," he somberly intones, "the world had turned on Austria's greatest man, just because he tried to do something new.")
Fazed but undaunted, Bruno attempts a comeback, first by going to Hollywood to host a TV show and, eventually, traveling to the Middle East to broker Arab-Israeli peace. (Confusing the Gaza leadership with hummus, he asks an Israeli at one point, "Why are you against Hamas when pita bread is the real enemy?")
After making a stop in Africa to swap an iPod for a baby, he finally lands in Cohen's favorite hunting ground for cultural extremes and religious oddities: the American South. Here, Bruno enlists in a National Guard training camp (he adds a scarf to his fatigues, declaring them "too matchy-matchy"), signs up with an evangelical "converter" who heterosexualizes gay men, takes a martial-arts lesson using anatomically graphic sex toys as props, and finally spends an evening with a group of self-described swingers.
These are all quintessential Cohen moments, and in "Borat" they possessed the vertiginous sense of spontaneity, danger and unwitting honesty that made that movie a cross between Jonathan Swift and Andy Kaufman. But in "Bruno," the skits don't add up to anything substantive, and even his swipes at U.S. politicians here seem gratuitously cruel (his quarry this time is presidential candidate Ron Paul, whom Bruno tries to lure into making a sex tape).
The movie's finest moment is also its oddest: Bruno joins a group of hunters on a camping trip, and around the campfire speaks wistfully of "all the guys out there" while gazing at the night sky. The uneasy silence that ensues, with each man studiously avoiding the others' eyes, attains almost dadaesque surrealism as an unblinking study in social awkwardness.
But then the viewer has to ask: What's Cohen's point? Even if they're uncomfortable, the men remain essentially tolerant until Bruno crosses boundaries that anyone, gay or straight, would surely object to. And let the viewer beware: If you thought the naked wrestling scene in "Borat" was over the top, get ready for lots of live sex acts, close-ups of men's nether regions (one of which actually talks at one point) and a graphically lascivious pantomime.
And so "Bruno" goes, taking all of its stunts to such unpalatable extremes that any larger philosophical point Cohen wants to make -- about vapid celebrity culture or homophobia or Puritan sexual hypocrisy -- is drowned out by Bruno's overweening unpleasantness.
In Borat, Cohen created a weird but mostly likable naif, whose bumbling travels revealed the roots of fear and ignorance that grow into larger and more dangerous hatreds. Bruno is no Borat. His narcissism, combined with the fact that the scenes in "Bruno" are far more obviously staged than in the previous movie, give the entire enterprise a nasty and, worse, irrelevant tone. Even an initially hilarious final flourish doesn't live up to its potential, and "Bruno" goes out with a shrug instead of a bang.
"Bruno" could have been a flawlessly timed satiric contribution to the conversation about gay civil rights. But by setting up facile and often clearly fictional targets, and taunting them with ever more raunchy and puerile stunts, "Bruno" settles for lazy laughs. With stakes this low, the question isn't what in the movie is real or fake. The question is, Who cares?
Bruno (88 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and profanity.