Posted: 11/15/2009




by Matt Fagerholm

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“It’s like Transformers…but not as gay,”
—Bruno (describing his new film) on Letterman

“Fearless” is the best way to describe the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen. People who find his humor too vulgar and over-the-top have missed the point. Cohen’s goal is to be as vulgar and over-the-top as humanly possible. I’m reminded of Mel Brooks’ oft-quoted quip, “My movies rise below vulgarity.” His comic personas are deliberately outrageous caricatures that seem to have been spawned directly from conservative America’s fear of the “other” (whether it be a homosexual or a Khazakistanian). When Cohen plunks his fictional creations into real-world situations alongside unsuspecting citizens, the results range from “Candid ”-style shock gags to brilliant evocations of repressed prejudices. At his best, Cohen is a triumphant champion of tolerance. He’s like Mel Brooks, Norman Lear and Peter Sellers all in one side-splitting package, and his package has never acquired more screen time than it does in Bruno.

Bruno was my favorite of Cohen’s three characters he embodied on his short-lived yet extraordinary “Da Ali G Show.” He’s a flamboyantly gay fashion reporter who exposes both the inherent mindlessness of the fashion culture, and the aggressive homophobia that exists in most Americans. Yet in his film, fashion quickly takes a backseat to homophobia, as Bruno finds himself fired from his reporting job, and decides to become a big-time celebrity in America…by any means necessary. That includes adopting an African baby, filming a sex tape (in which he mistakes Ron Paul for RuPaul), and becoming straight. On his quest for fame, Bruno is considerably more bitchy and self-obsessed than he was on the TV show, but that’s a minor quibble. The main problem with Bruno is…well, the exact same problem with Borat. What works in short vignettes on television tends to run out of steam at feature length on the big screen.

When Borat jettisoned into mainstream theaters in 2006, only a small die-hard fan base were familiar with his comedy. To the masses, Borat was fresh and cutting-edge. Bruno has the misfortune of being made after Borat, and thus may seem like just more of the same. Its slick, MTV-style look (appropriate to its character) isn’t as inventive as the foreign documentary structure of Borat. Some have accused Cohen of selling out to become a commercial product, but they are confusing the artist with the character. While Oscar winners like Milk are still limited to art house circuits, Bruno is the most mainstream call for gay rights American audiences have had the opportunity to see at their local theater. Will all audiences get the joke, and therefore, get the message? Probably not, but it’s great that they’ll at least have the chance.

For all of its shortcomings, Bruno still made my throat sore from laughing, and for all of its hit-or-miss gags, it delivered several unforgettable moments of comic genius. There’s some acrobatic sexual activity that may boggle the most liberal mind, and an uproarious TV pilot Bruno plays for appalled test audiences that builds to what may very well be the single most outrageous image ever to be granted the R-rating by the MPAA. Bruno’s graphic “kissing” of an invisible male spirit is some kind of dirty tour-de-force, and a climactic sequence set in a violently heterosexual cage match manages to equal Borat’s great rodeo scene while achieving a kind of beautiful poignance amidst the raucous hilarity. At the end of Bruno’s slight 84 minutes, the prevailing feeling is not of embarrassment or disgust, but rather gleeful elation at Cohen’s gift for finding vital truth in outlandish humor.

The Blu-ray edition of the film includes over an hour of additional footage, but no deleted scene proves to be as memorable as Borat’s trip to the supermarket (where he asked the miraculously patient manager to identify each individual cheese product in the store). The real reason to see the film on Blu-ray is the fascinating, thoroughly entertaining video commentary from Cohen and director Larry Charles. It provides a surprisingly candid look behind the scenes of the tumultuous production, as they discuss their various battles with disgruntled citizens, confused cops and (of course) the MPAA. Whenever they had a decision to make the film more bankable (and widely accessible) or more daring (and funnier), they always went with the latter.

Listening to the audience during a Sacha Baron Cohen movie is nearly as entertaining as the movie itself. There’s always shouts of outage mixed with the laughter, and there will occasionally be walk-outs. It reminds me of a show I saw in high school, where students competed in the male equivalent of a Miss America pageant. For the talent portion of the show, the guys wrestled each other and recited romantic poetry for their girlfriends. An uneasy silence fell upon the school theater, however, when a guy appeared on the stage in a sash and dress and began to sing, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” He was confident, exuberant, and boldly funny, and by the time he got to the line, “Come and get me boys!” the crowd was in an all-out uproar. Half the audience cheered him on, while the other half screamed out in protest. A good friend of mine once said that a person’s mere existence can be a protest. The guy singing onstage that night was a one-man protest, and so is Cohen.

Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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