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Brüno ***

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BrunoThe third (and presumably final) cinematic outing of Sasha Baron Cohen, Brüno is alternately sharp and woolly, funny and painful. The second sub-character from his successful British comedy Da Ali G Show, Brüno is a GAY Austrian television personality and fashionista whose initial purpose was to provoke all kinds of inanities from models and designers, to puncture their pseudo-intellectual veneer of meaning. Yet this sound comic basis lasts all of one minute into the feature, when it descends into the same set-piece exploitation format which came to define Borat (and only re-emerges in a potent second act climax, when Brüno finds pushy parents eager to place their tots in hazardous, vile and inexcusable photo-shoots). Brüno also shares the same loose narrative structure of Borat, but without the ‘depth’ of characterization or any emotional investment (except for a general sense of unease at pathetic Brüno’s constant subjection to threat). And so ultimately, it boils down to little more than these sketches, which are at their best an appauling, grimacing experience, and at worst, stagey and conceited.

What a shame, then, that Brüno stopped drawing stupidity to the lips of some of the Western world’s worst air-heads (only to start spouting that same stupidity to provoke his targets’ prejudices, inhibitions and sometimes, strength of character – and make no mistake, every audience member is as much a target as are the barreled fish on screen). Unlike Borat, Brüno was always a flimsy character, essentially a more direct mouthpiece / weapon / vehicle for Baron Cohen himself – and this wasn’t a problem when his routine went along the same lines as Dennis Pennis. But when he says and performs outrageous things on film in the name of exposing the prejudice of others, he leaves himself as well as his character open for judgement. And I won’t bother going into depth on all the criticisms trotted out already (the duplicity of setting folks up while staging much of the content; of breaking the gag by getting Bono and the gang in on it; claiming to make quasi-ethical or moral points; a critical embargo excepting top marks from The Guardian; compromising some sort of integrity by snipping the film to get a 15 rating) but I will defend Baron Cohen on one count: he hasn’t really claimed to be exposing their (and our) prejudices.

Bruno2Admittedly, Baron Cohen held pretty full control of the project, although I suspect he won’t have determined the precise character of the well-publicized press notes. He is notoriously private and disinclined to give interviews out of character. So there hasn’t been a chance for Baron Cohen to make these claims. Has Brüno made them? I suspect not. And even if he has, perhaps this is just another firecracker in the toilet-bowl of those critics who choose to jump on the bandwagon and support his cause (a cause they retroactively ascribe). This seems most likely – after all, why else would he include the offensively caricatured, absurdist scenes of homosexual intercourse in the opening minutes of the film (not to mention his singing penis, and upsetting liaison with Ron Paul)? Much like von Trier’s opening scene in Antichrist, this is a case of the auteur turned prankster taking the piss out of liberal critics and audiences (who will ally themselves with what they take to be progressive material). Much as Bill Hicks tried to offend his Guardian-reading audience at the Dominion Theatre in 1993 with ‘goat-boy’, Baron Cohen indolently tries to bewilder and alienate those who hijack his anarchic and essentially absurd comedy, by making it indefensible. And as an absurdist (whose purpose is the non-progressive, almost aphoristic satirical deflation of trenchant political and moral positions) he must keep attacking any fixed position, and anyone who takes one up when trying to pin him down.

This is precisely why it is so frustrating to find a great part of the British critical establishment assaulting Antichrist (whilst also meekly contemplating freedom of speech and the Obscene Publications Act or disgustedly demanding This Film Be Banned) on the basis that it is duplicitous / manipulative / calculated to generate buzz by carving opinion in two. Lars von Trier, as Philip French so graciously pointed out, comes from a background where such antics are almost essential to create real publicity, and needn’t undermine the work (after all, his subject matter can do that all by itself). Sasha Baron Cohen, by contrast, actually denies us the ability to cry Ban This Filth by virtue of his subject matter (heaven forfend we appear homophobic as an accidental byproduct). But I would argue that Cohen’s film is the more manipulative and calculated. And in any case, that doesn’t mean we have to walk straight into his absurd custard pie (Peter Bradshaw’s jokingly snide term, and one much more relevant to Brüno than Antichrist, whose surrealism has actual substance, and incidentally, politics – unlike the staunchly apolitical Brüno).

Bruno3Yet again, I find myself wanting to stand up for poor Brüno. Maybe this is what is so great about him: his best shock scenes are almost impossible to assimilate. When others have their eyes shut, I am peeking through my fingers, squirming with pleasure. Admittedly, a personal response (after all, part of Brüno’s power is to litmus-test the audience for the sexually insecure or closet homophobic, who often comes close to or does in fact walk out). But there is something quite singular and terribly daring in some of these performances (the kind of suicidal recklessness required of a man in war – whose disregard for life lets him run at the enemy but whose love for life tunes his senses to keep him alive). I am thinking, above all, of the second act, in which Brüno travels to the Middle East (bringing together an ex-Mossad head, a top Jewish academic, and major figures from Palestinian government, so that he can ask them to discuss Hummus rather than Hamas; confronting a purported member of the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade to volunteer for kidnapping and call “[his] king Osama…a dirty wizard or homeless Santa“). But there are also the passages where Brüno test screens some appalling filth in front of a prototypical American focus group, and takes his adopted baby O.J. onto a predominantly black-audience talk show. This stuff is neither big, nor clever. But it has such admirable cheek and gall, and the power to alienate everyone.

Perhaps the most basic measure of its success (given its billing as a comedy) is the laugh-count. Which was high, by the way. Somehow, though, Brüno is unfulfilling. Blame it on structural problems, a lack of stronger material, absence of narrative or appropriate sketch-arc; Brüno is repetitive, and we all get quite tired of his vapid antics: his third act, an attempt at thrusting himself into heterosexual activity, is pretty lackluster.  (I wonder, how much of this could be down to Larry Charles, whose direction I am generally underwhelmed by…) But if one adopts an uncritical stance at this stage, it can be an overall entertaining experience (at least for the uninhibited, or perverse). It is also refreshingly anarchic and politically cathartic – and there is something deeply appealing (and characteristically Eastern-European – oddly recalling the satirical culture of Borat’s homeland and her neighbours) about this brand of violently anti-issue work. It’s just a shame that Brüno lacks the dimensionality and polished execution of Baron Cohen’s other creations.


Brüno, Dir. Larry Charles, Writ. Baron Cohen & Hines, Star. Sasha Baron Cohen, Media Rights Capital & Everyman, UK, 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

31/07/2009 at 23:42

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