Movies Reviews Sacha Baron Cohen

Release Date: July 10

Director: Larry Charles

Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer

Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten

Cinematographer: Anthony Hardwick, Wolfgang Held

Studio/Run Time: Üniversal Pictures, 83 mins.

Brüno is sharper, funnier, and more profane than Borat. Thank goodness.

Let’s get this clear right at the top: anyone who thought Borat was crass and unfunny would do well to stay away from the new film called Brüno by Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles. The British comedian known for disappearing completely into his faux naïve characters has a new personality but the same strategy: Break the rules of decorum while the cameras are rolling to see how people react. His tactics as a flamboyantly gay, highly sexed fashion maven are even more brusquely offensive to genteel sensibilities than his Kazakh rube was. Delicate souls should steer clear.

The thin story exists mostly as a skeleton for a series of stunts. Austrian TV personality Brüno is fired by his network after he makes a mockery of a Milan fashion show, which sends him to America where he aims to start from scratch. In his search for American stardom, he picks the brains of a few famous people (such as Paula Abdul, who he asks to sit on bent-over Mexican men as she talks about her humanitarian work) and a number of average Americans (such as a group of hunters who are none too pleased by the prospect of camping next to a predator).

Each set piece loosely links to the next, but if you focus solely on his antics you’ll miss two important aspects of Baron Cohen’s talent. First, he and his writers have a strong grasp of silly but varied wordplay. He pronounces “Kevin Schpacey” and “schtylist” so smoothly in his rapid dialogue, and with such a straight face, that his words run like water over a pebble. And into that flow of words he slips a flurry of profane Nazi jokes that feel like the dangerous entitlement of a Jewish comedian. He’s ever referring to his behind as his “Auschwitz,” for example, and no one bats an eye. Of these two linguistic skills, one recalls the facile tongue of his fellow Brit Peter Sellars, while the other nods to that feisty Yank Mel Brooks. Baron Cohen of the 21st century certainly works bluer, but he’s in good company nonetheless.

Over and over in both films, we see his strategy: he subjects an unsuspecting individual to leading questions designed to make the person get up and punch him in the face or simply concur. Either way, he wins. But under the light of repetition, it’s clear that the strategy has three kinds of results. Sometimes the goal is simple audacity. Would this guy really go to Israel and walk among Hasidic Jews while dressed in a revealing rekel and shorty shorts? In such instances, the reactions of the people, usually little more than a furrowed brow or a double take, are almost beside the point, and director Charles offers just a few seconds of them, like closure for a joke that has already peaked. The Middle East seems like a long way to go to offend a few radicals—Israelis and Palestinians, terrorists and peaceniks, anybody and everybod but the thrill is in the dangerous chutzpah of the entire idea. That’s what the audience has come to see. They have a hope for audacity, if you will.

That can be funny at a Jackass level, but the second and far more satisfying result happens when Brüno seems to get people to reveal their biases, even in front of a clearly visible camera crew, as if he’s lifted society’s fanciest rugs and found feces swept beneath. Brüno skewers celebrities at every turn, not necessarily specific stars but the very idea of imagecraft. When he consults with a pair of charity experts who specialize in matching a star to his or her most aggrandizing cause, he tells them that Darfur is passé and, thinking ahead, wants to know “What’s Dar-five? In just a few minutes he seems to plumb the experts’ shallow knowledge of the world’s trouble spots and, in the process, undercuts countless off-screen celebs.

The third result is often the least comfortable, the result of subjecting regular people to something disgusting just to see them storm out of the room. In these heavily edited, vaguely established routines, it’s not at all clear that he’s uncovered homophobia just because he’s found people who don’t want his penis waggled in their faces. Sometimes he’ll find that people are accommodating of his antics if they think fame or stardom is lurking around the corner, which is interesting, but other times the stunt just seems pointless, like telling an African-American audience at The Richard Bey Show that he traded an iPod for a black baby. (Although, admittedly, his justification that it was a special “Product Red” iPod, the kind that generates money to fight AIDS and malaria, is a deliciously absurd irony.)

The bottom line is that Baron Cohen’s goal is to make the audience gasp and laugh, preferably at the same time, and the bits of social commentary feel important but secondary. The film’s first few minutes should tell you if Brüno is for you; those who stay will be treated to a film that’s more focused than Borat, with more jokes and less fluff, a film that saves the best joke for last. It ends with a wonderfully staged cage-match bait-and-switch that must have Andy Kaufman rolling—with laughter—in his grave.

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