Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bruno Breaks Barriers: Including Taste

(but read review first - it's not for everyone.)

Once more into the breech, my dear Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of "Da Ali G Show" and 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Once more Cohen has taken a character from his show - a strange foreign fellow with flagrant cultural insensitivities - and brought him to America to make fun of the local fauna. This time, instead of an oafish, boorish exhibitionist anti-Semite with a mangled middle-Asian accent, he's created a mincing, gay-pride-parade stereotype Austrian fashion plate who wants to be "more famous than Hitler" (and has a mangled Teutonic accent.)

Some people will call this the worst movie ever, but that's only because sometimes great comic catharsis is perilously close to travesty - and this is one of those times. But there is brilliance in Brüno's formula. I give any recommendation to see this movie with a grain of salt: it is not for the weak of heart, or the easily shocked.

Yes, the formula here is the same as Borat. But this time the character is more complex, tweaking multiple sensitivities at once (including celebrity culture, homophobia, racial political correctness, and middle-eastern politics). Brüno is a myopically narcissistic fame-seeking celebrophile - so naturally, he starts his hunt for his prey in Los Angeles, where he bags some real celebrities (like "American Idol"'s Paula Abdul, who falls prey to a twistedly brilliant gag involving naked Mexicans posing as furniture). Easy pickings: they fall for the gag and reveal their own flagrant narcissism. Only this time, Cohen adds a second level of humor that also works in reverse: while he cozies up to celebrities the way that Borat cozies up to nascent anti-Semites, Brüno also effectively breaks down cultural homophobic taboos by flaunting his outrageous stereotype in the face of unsuspecting politicians (Ron Paul), southerners, and other fish in a barrel in order to provoke outrage, scorn, derision - and at times, violence.

This is dangerous comedy - pointedly so, since five uniformed police officers were guarding the theater when I went in the door (either there to keep out the underage, or hired by Baron Cohen's publicist, it's hard to tell). And I know this movie isn't for everyone - there are people who will adamantly refuse to see it, and that's fine - but for the folks in the theater, the uneasy laughter at Cohen's gags was a highly vocal combination of shock, outrage, and uncontrollable laughter. This is comedy shock-therapy for our politically correct generation, and Cohen holds, shall we say, absolutely nothing back - including his dancing penis.

Did I say dancing penis? In any other movie (I think back to Year One), that might be a simple Borscht-Belt sight gag: here, it's a witty, shocking deconstruction of - well, whatever assumed prejudice that Cohen is deconstructing at the moment (in that particular scene I think it had something to do with the obsequious blandness produced by focus-group-testing American TV broadcasting). The gags go on from there, including everything from fondling Congressman Ron Paul in a hotel bedroom to a simulated mid-seance blow-job to showing pictures of a black baby in a hot tub of men having sex in front of an outraged African-American studio audience and then doubling-down on the gag by saying he's given the baby a proud African name: "O.J."

Why the movie is hilarious (and also so disconcerting) is that Cohen has a brilliant sense of just where our sexual, racial, and economic boundaries are - and he doesn't just want to tweak them, he wants to blast right through them shouting from the rooftops. In an age where we've come to delude ourselves that we have no more prejudices, that we can all get along, and that "alternative" culture is the mainstream, Cohen is there to tell us quite pointedly what hypocrites we are: we have boundaries, stupid...and while we're laughing at the rednecks who are so easily riled into violence at two men kissing, we're also laughing at our own shock at Brüno's easy homophobic caricature. Yes, we ask ourselves, should we be watching this? Is this stuff "good for us"? Will some people not get the joke, seeing in Cohen's character only a silly faggot to laugh at? Cohen makes us uncomfortable for feeling uncomfortable, and for laughing in a crowd where we have no idea whether others are laughing with us or at us, and why.

In a way, then, what Cohen has produced with Brüno is an updated Rocky Horror Picture Show, with real people playing the seduced nerd roles of Brad and Janet, and a new generation of a cooler, more multicultural audience laughing in participation. Brüno goes much farther than Frank N' Furter did in his day, but he's no less the tragic idealistic sexual dreamer, looking for a world of hung-up stiffs to deflower. He does it memorably and with the kind of shockingly powerful comic release that I probably haven't experienced since the first time I saw Frankie, Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia do the Time Warp in 1978, back at the Grandview theater in Columbus, Ohio. If you can stomach this kind of thing, and really want to be taken to the edge, it's best to experience it with a crowd.

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