Here’s my short version of this review for those of you who don’t really want to read any details: “Bruno” is a better film overall than “Borat” was, but it’s also far more difficult material, and there’s a chance it may really hurt some viewers. I think it’s worth it, because this is social satire that matters, timely and angry and truly extreme, but there are some caveats I’d offer to viewers who are at all hesitant based on the type of material that the film deal with this time.
I realized recently that I never quite reviewed “Borat,” the last collaboration by Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles, mainly because by the time I got around to seeing it, that was opening day, and everyone else in the world had already written about it, including about 400 reviews on Ain’t It Cool. The night the film opened, I went to a screening at The Bridge that was hosted by G4, and then I made a quick appearance on “Attack Of The Show” live from the theater to talk about it with Kevin, Olivia, and Chris Gore.
When I wrote about that TV appearance, here’s what I had to say about “Borat,” which represents the sum total of my writing about Cohen’s film output so far:
[more after the jump]
“This film’s real merits (and faults) will assert themselves once you’ve seen it dozens of times. The Great Comedies settle in. They are the films that become ritual, seen so many times that they’re internalized. Films like AIRPLANE and ANIMAL HOUSE and MONTY PYTHON & THE HOLY GRAIL were like that for me as a kid. Movies like BLAZING SADDLES and CADDYSHACK and DUCK SOUP and LOVE AND DEATH, movies that enter the pantheon because they endure. They reward that kind of attention. Films like THE BIG LEBOWSKI or RAISING ARIZONA or KINGPIN or SOUTH PARK. I’m sure you can name two dozen I haven’t said here, and I’m sure I could, too. The point is, you know when you’re going to go back and see a film more than once. Or more than twice. I have a feeling I’ll see BORAT several more times, but I don’t think it particularly stands out past the best work he’s already done on the various incarnations of DA ALI G SHOW. I think Cohen’s got a classic or two in him, though. The moments when this film works, when the character absolutely connects, are genuine comedy magic. Cohen’s going to be working for a long time, I’m sure, and we’ll see different phases of his career. If he’s smart, it won’t all be a one-man show. With the right filmmaker, working with truly great actors around him, I think he could be unstoppable.”
I’m glad Cohen decided to make another film where he comingles an outrageous creation like Bruno and real people, unsuspecting, because the results this time go much further than “Borat” ever did, in no small part because of timing. This is our cultural conversation right now, and “Bruno” minces in, ready to demolish preconceptions in every direction.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was moving from Florida, and I’d had fairly limited exposure to openly gay culture. I have members of my extended family who are gay, and I had already been taught important lessons about tolerance and acceptance and differences in the way people love and live, but moving to LA is a whole different exposure to things. If you’re homophobic, I’m not sure how you’d survive an hour here, much less living here on a permanent basis. One of the jobs I had (and I’ll speak vaguely here so as not to draw anyone’s specific ire) put me in direct contact with a manager who challenged every expectation or understanding I had so developed up to that point about gay people… or more importantly, about the basics of how people interact.
This manager was very, very openly gay. And I applaud the decision to live one’s life on your own terms, but with this guy, it went much further than just living openly. His favorite thing to do was shock people by having insanely graphic conversations while we would work, as loudly as possible, determined to get reactions as often as possible. I learned about such pasttimes as “felching,” “snowballing,” and “The Downhill Racer.” And if anyone ever flinched in the face of one of his verbal onslaughts, he would snap, instantly calling them out as homophobes. He loved it when someone would recoil from some graphic description of fisting, because it allowed him to label them and dismiss them completely, and if you didn’t give him that reaction, he’d keep pushing it further and further until he found your threshhold. And at the time, I hated that feeling, that sense that I was being challenged every day with the specific goal of “proving” that I didn’t like gay people. I couldn’t understand what would lead someone to push people like that.
I think I do understand now, though. I think we live in a culture that is so profoundly sexualized anyway that it’s hard to take a step back and be objective about it. Everywhere you look, every day, all the time, heterosexual iconography is being used to sell things, and it confronts us in advertising and entertainment and music videos and games and every other facet of pop culture. In recent years, there’s been a redress of that imbalance, and I’d say far more gay iconography has also crept into pop culture, but it’s still nowhere near balanced or the same, and to someone like that ex-manager of mine, he must have seen himself as a cultural warrior, determined to make straight people feel what it’s like to have hetero imagery bombard them constantly, no matter what they personally want or like.
“Bruno” is like spending two hours with that guy, and the result is going to be uncomfortable for many people. I think if you have any issues with gay culture or with seeing gay sexual imagery, you’re going to have a hard time making it through the full running time. This movie pushes the R rating as hard as anything I’ve ever seen, and while this year’s been somewhat startling for the amount of flaccid male nudity we’ve seen, “Bruno” introduces the erect penis into the conversation, and with vigor. Beyond that, there is a pervasive sexual tone to things that gets overwhelming after a while.
In terms of narrative, I think the film works better than “Borat” because there’s a stronger through-line to it. Bruno begins the film as a fashion icon in Austria, but after a disastrous appearance at a fashion show wearing an all-velcro suit, he is blackballed from the industry. He decides to move to America to become a celebrity, taking only his assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten, who I haven’t seen since Lukas Moodysson’s “Together”) with him. As he tries different routes to accomplish that celebrity, he manages to challenge our notions of what makes a celebrity and why people are famous. Even without the gay material, “Bruno” would serve as a savage indictment of a culture where fame is the goal instead of the side-effect of accomplishment. But when you factor in the confrontational nature of Bruno’s sexuality, he seems to not only be holding up a mirror to the truly homophobic (the big finale at the ‘Straight Dave’s Man-Slammin’ Maxout’ cage fight is terrifying) but also to those who insist on living their private lives at full volume. The truth is, I don’t care what anyone does in the bedroom, and part of that is not really needing to hear about it. I don’t want the details, but it’s not because of homophobia… it’s because I don’t really need that degree of information about anyone else’s sex life. I barely like knowing the details of my own, for godssakes.
The mix of the scripted and the real is more subtle here, too, so audiences will really have no idea where the fake ends and the genuine begins. I like that. I think Cohen is one of the best comic performers working right now, and I look forward to what comes next in his career, as directors start really using him in all sorts of unexpected ways. I hope that people are able to see this film for what it is… a very political, blistering piece of comedy that means to offend in every direction at once. What I fear, to some degree, is that audiences outside of areas where there is a strong gay community may react badly, and that anyone in the audience who is gay will feel threatened or uncomfortable, no matter how much they know Cohen’s in on the joke. I believe that this sort of nuclear-strike comedy can genuinely impact audiences, maybe more than they realize as they’re sitting there watching, and I think these are important ideas.
More than anything, it’s my sincere hope that there will come a time when people look back at “Bruno” and just shrug and say, “What was all the fuss about?” We’ve got a long way to go to get there, but we’re taking the right steps every day, and no matter how angry it makes you, this film is part of that process.
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