The new Sacha Baron Cohen outrage wasn't screened by WW
deadlines, which gave us a little extra time to ponder it.
For weeks leading up to the release of Brüno
, much concern has been voiced: Is Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to Borat
a spoof of homophobia, or itself homophobic? It's the kind of Russian-nesting-doll question that makes for good copy—it provides plenty of opportunity for righteous indignation, especially when the film hasn't been seen yet. In the event, Brüno
is hardly anti-gay, although the confusion is understandable. The character is a straw man-whore, intended to agitate people into revealing their intolerance, and so he is unlike any gay man you or I have ever met, unless you've spent time in Austria with catwalk models whose sexual partners outnumber their brain cells by a power of 10. Brüno is a flaming provocation, poking bigots with a stick. (The stick is his penis. Literally.) But while the movie is witty, its satire suffers from uncertainty about its targets. When it finally figures its intentions out, it gets sharper and funnier—and very nasty.
The movie's scattershot nature is the easier problem to identify, and explain. Brüno, the third of Baron Cohen's heavily-accented alter egos from Da Ali G Show
, is a disgraced fashion correspondent who can't seem to draw the Hollywood attention he craves. “How am I going to make a show without celebrities?” he moans. This is also the problem facing Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles—after Ali G and Borat, few public figures are dim enough to trust another ostensible foreign correspondent long enough to be humiliated. The best Brüno can do is convince Paula Abdul to use Mexican day-laborers for chairs, and get Ron Paul into a hotel room for five excruciating minutes. (“He's queer as crazy
blazes!” the Presidential candidate rages.) So without celebrity victims, Baron Cohen and Charles must resort to punking ordinary people. As the targets get more obscure, the stunts have to be more bizarre to incite a reaction, which in turn leads to finding even more fringe targets, who are more likely to become agitated. You can see how this chain reaction could go on for a while. And indeed, the first 40 minutes or so of Brüno
are fairly taxing, as our hero complains about his anal bleaching to a mid-level talent agent and bewilders a test audience with a TV program featuring a urethra that shouts his name.
There is, eventually, a certain admirable courage to Baron Cohen's comedy: In the film's second half, he narrows his aim to fundamentalists of all stripes. He's equally willing to inform a terrorist cell leader that Osama bin Laden looks like “a homeless Santa” and stumble through a “God Hates Fags” protest wearing only bondage gear. (This assumes, of course, that none of these encounters are staged—it is difficult to imagine that the U. S. military let Brüno within 100 yards of basic training for any reason.) He's a Molotov cocktail of pluralism. But even as you thrill to Baron Cohen summoning the spirit of Andy Kaufman by inciting an Arkansas pro-wrestling crowd to violence with a hand-to-handjob cage match, you have to wonder: Do all
these people deserve this?
Satire is supposed to take the side of the oppressed, and Brüno
can't be faulted for failing to defend Americans who are denied basic rights. But like Borat
before it, the movie also delights in needling people who are trying very hard—and eventually failing—to patiently endure on-camera harassment. You can argue that Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedic heir to Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman, working to expose sexual prejudices through radical confrontation. But if you agree to that parallel, you have to deal with the scene where Brüno provokes a black talk-show crowd by displaying the African baby he's adopted and named “O.J.”—a scene that encourages the audience to mock a minority audience mocking a minority. At a certain point, this becomes an invitation for the oppressed to become oppressors. It's one more step toward making our society a Simpsons
schoolyard, with each of us our own Nelson Muntz, pointing our fingers and shouting “HA HA!” at everyone else. All of which is to say that Sacha Baron Cohen has balls, but maybe he's breeding bullies.
Brüno is rated R. It opens Friday at Broadway Metro 4 Theatres, Century 16 Cedar Hills Crossing, Century Eastport 16, Cinema 99 Stadium 11, Cinemas Bridgeport Village Stadium 18 IMAX, Cinetopia, City Center Stadium 12, Cornelius 9 Cinemas, Division Street Stadium 13, Evergreen Parkway Stadium 13, Hilltop 9 Cinema, Lloyd Center Stadium 10 Cinema, Movies On TV Stadium 16, Oak Grove 8 Cinemas, Pioneer Place Stadium 6, Sandy Cinemas, Sherwood Stadium 10, Tigard 11 Cinemas and Wilsonville Stadium 9 Cinema.