by Brett Parker
The genius of Borat, the breakout comedy hit that launched Sacha Baron Cohen to the status of revolutionary pop genius, was its unscripted spontaneity. The character of Borat was a clueless foreigner trying his hand at American customs that yielded painfully embarrassing results. The brilliance of the film’s execution was that Borat was unleashed on real, unsuspecting people who took him at face value. The film wasn’t really a scripted sitcom so much as a comic documentary in which a bizarre caricature of foreign alienation collided with actual Americans. The fascinating thing about this comic stunt was that it unearthed naked feelings of racism, homophobia, awkwardness, and indifference within American people as vividly as possible on the silver screen. To watch Borat is to watch a great prankster pulling off a grand joke on a staggering amount of intelligible targets.
Borat went on to become a cinematic success and a pop culture phenomenon. Cohen was hailed as a comic revolutionary and the film was cited as a breakthrough in big screen comedy. Borat was such a sensation that its success probably explains why the impact of Cohen’s latest creation, Bruno, feels skewered. The worst thing that can happen to a con artist is for their methods to be exposed out in the open; if everyone knows your con, who is there left to con? If everyone knows who Cohen is as well as the game he runs, who is there left to be duped by his shenanigans? I can’t vouch for exactly how much of Bruno is scripted versus how much is real, but a lot of the film does in fact feels very scripted. As funny and as culturally revealing as this comedy really is, the film lacks the grand tensions and vicious hilarity that Borat delivered in never-ending waves.
The film places Cohen in the caricature incarnation of Bruno, an openly-gay Austrian fashion critic who hosts one of the most popular fashion shows in most German speaking countries (except for Germany, he explains). Bruno is a powerful fixture on some of the hottest fashion circuits until one disastrous day in which he wears an outfit entirely made of Velcro to a fashion show and slapstick chaos ensues backstage that spills out onto the runway. This stunt costs Bruno his show and gets him blacklisted from most major fashion happenings. With nothing left to do with himself in his homeland, Bruno decides to head to America to seek instant fame and an A-List celebrity status.As in Borat, Cohen plants his comic creation in the center of real-life situations with unsuspecting people, this time targeting the absurdities of pop culture and the unsettling ignorance of homophobia. He creates a homosexually-charged television show that horrifies an actual TV focus group. He parades an adopted African baby like a fashion accessory on a talk show that enrages an all-black studio audience. His gay flamboyance creates an unsettling discomfort amongst a group of southern hunters. And I’ll leave for you to discover what unfolds during a swingers party and in the aftermath of a hotel tryst. In tow for Bruno’s wacky adventures is his always-faithful assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), an unglamorous man who finds that he loves Bruno more than anything.
It can be debated endlessly about which parts of Bruno are real and which are scripted, but it seems rather obvious that the film lacks the lingering squeamishness Borat delivered so well. The earlier film was a lightning rod for prolonged sequences of delicious embarrassment. This time, scenes of supposed real life embarrassment is either rushing through its punchline or dull in its execution. Most scenes lack the juicy bite Borat couldn’t seem to contain. Some scenes, like one in which Bruno sings a made-up song about peace to unite Israeli and Palestinian leaders, don’t push human buttons as hard and relentlessly as the last time around. Certain scenes have great set-ups, in which we expect all comic hell to break loose, yet come across pretty tame. I’m thinking specifically of a scene where Bruno signs up for a military boot camp and the drill sergeants are horrified by his bubbly flamboyance. The sequence doesn’t reach its comic potential because the drill instructors never reach the point of conniption we hoped they would nor does Bruno takes things as hilariously far as he should.
However, the film is lucky enough to cook up some hotbed moments of hysterical awkwardness and that’s when the film really comes alive. A discussion Bruno holds with a Christian “Gay Converter” reveals just how foolish self-righteous holy men can look. An interview Bruno conducts with parents who want their babies to be stars reveals just how horrifyingly driven and shallow star parents can be. A moment of stunning hilarity erupts when Bruno stages a hidden camera seduction of politician Ron Paul (in which Paul disturbingly freaks out and calls Bruno a “queer”). And call me crazy, but I think Harrison Ford really did tell Bruno to “f—k off!”
There’s really only one moment in the film that reaches the same level of Borat’s wildly hilarious yet painfully revealing clashing between comedy and reality. The climax shows Bruno at a cage-fighting match in the South pretending to be a gay-bashing talk show host. He rallies up the drunken fight fans surrounding him before challenging a male fan in the audience to a no-holds-barred fight. Halfway through the fight, Bruno begins making out with him and they rip their clothes off in a passionate embrace. As Bruno and his man have a wild fling, the audience watching this flips out to the point of raging insanity (one fan in the front row becomes so overcome with fury, he appears to be crying). Horrified by a homosexual display, the stadium clears out while remaining fans shout hostile insults and even try to break into the cage to hurt Bruno. The scene demonstrates Cohen’s method perfectly: we’re in stitches over his comic audacity yet in disbelief over the American ignorance on display. Cohen has developed a unique gift for igniting big laughs and lynch mobs simultaneously.
It’s a real shame that Bruno doesn’t have the same cinematic power as Borat, for I found Cohen’s bumbling fame-seeker funnier than his goofball immigrant. His targets feel juicier and more relevant while Cohen brings a touch more sincerity to his character than last time. For when it comes down to it, Bruno just wants real love and attention, and it’s a testament to Cohen’s comic talents that he makes us empathize so strongly with this bizarre caricature. I was really surprised to find myself actually caring whether or not Bruno will drop his shallowness and embrace the genuine love Lutz actually feels for him. Nevertheless, there is no denying the fearless courage Cohen possesses in his comic guerilla tactics. Very rarely has a comedian genuinely made us laugh at their jokes and fear for their life at the same time. He truly has earned his place alongside Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman in the comic revolutionary hall of fame.
The current state of comedy seems to champion human awkwardness as its prized form. The popular success of Judd Apatow films and TV’s The Office is hard proof of that. But Cohen and his director Larry Charles (Borat, TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) have really perfected this comic trend beyond being a gimmick and being hilariously significant. The genius is not in the characters Cohen creates, but how he uses it to expose the horrifyingly hilarious depths of everyday human beings. Despite its shortcomings and staginess, Bruno consistently delivers laughs and holds our attention from start to finish. While it doesn’t slam dunk its targets with the same wild zest as Borat did, it’s still successful in highlighting how buffoonish our celebrity culture and homophobic ignorance truly is. The question now is how many times can Cohen possibly get away with his character cons in the future? There’s only so many times you can fool the American public before they all start to catch on, right?