Bruno: Ich Bin Disappointed
The problem with Bruno isn’t homophobia. The homosexual stereotype perpetrated by Sacha Baron Cohen throughout this film might rub some the wrong way, but like Borat, Cohen wants to push the envelope of good taste in an attempt to push towards satire. The problem with Bruno is that so much of it isn’t funny. Cohen and director Larry Charles engage in a scorched earth policy, trying its hardest to shock us, and the effort is so great that the seams show. Bruno seems more staged and scripted than its predecessor, which makes the laughs fall flat. The final quarter of the film provides several laughs, covering much of the same ground as the previous film, but it doesn’t make up for the previous hour. With a more earnest approach and a less obnoxious attempt to wring every last laugh out of the audience, Bruno could have worked. Instead, it comes up well short of fabulous.
Plot? What plot? Bruno is a gay Austrian fashion icon who wants to achieve celebrity. He pursues it in various ways, most of which are outrageous and involve engaging LA celebrities, agents, and other people who could easily be coerced into staging a “spontaneous” documentary scene. After 45 minutes of this, the film turns, and Bruno realizes what stars like Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Kevin Spacey have in common– they’re all straight! (That line was the third true laugh of the film for me.) From there, Bruno attempts to embrace his inner hetero, and this is where the film takes off and gets consistent guffaws.
The problems with the majority of the film are numerous. It’s hard to tell whether the scenes seem staged because they aren’t funny or vice versa, but it is easy to notice that the camerawork is far more polished here than in Borat, with multiple camera shots and key reactions caught in close-up. The guerrilla comedy style only truly works if the audience is convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that what is happening is real, and once the audience begins to doubt it, the film falls apart. A couple of scenes in the Middle East, allegedly very real and very dangerous, are undercut by the staginess of the previous bits. Also, a scene with Ron Paul seems to be of vague satirical intent– are they trying to show even progressive politicians can use the word “queer,” or are they trying to show that nice, patient politicians get angry when annoyed and prodded beyond reason?
Another issue is that Bruno doesn’t have anything earnest to pursue. Borat, while full of deep set ignorance and malapropisms drizzled into his English, was sweet and earnest about trying to learn about America– hard as it is to believe, he’s lovable to a degree. Cohen fails to make Bruno lovable from the jump, and his lack of an earnest mission makes him simply self-absorbed and obnoxious. It completely undercuts the satire: the people aren’t homophobic, they’re reasonably annoyed. Once Bruno honestly wants to become straight, the film is full of laughs– a preacher convinced he can convert Bruno from gay to straight, a visit to a swinger’s party, a trip hunting and camping, and a cage wrestling match all get huge laughs. However, it becomes challenging for a critic to recommend a film for its final 20-25 minutes when the first hour provided only two memorable laughs.
What were those two laughs, you might wonder? A talking penis (yes, really) and a pantomimed sex act that goes on for far too long, getting funnier and funnier the farther it goes. That’s the trouble, really– so many of Cohen’s gags this time around depend on shock and not on the slow build. Borat was chock full of the slow building laugh, and from the minute our hero stepped off the plane in NYC, we believed every second of it. Here, Bruno is full of close-ups, quick cuts, and quick one-liners, i.e. conventional gross-out comedy shtick. There’s nothing revolutionary, there’s nothing satirical, and even the big laughs that come toward the end cover similar ground as the previous film. Cohen leaves very little doubt that he is the most committed comic actor in the world with this film. One just wishes he was as committed to giving his character something consistently funny to do.
Final note: some critics, and undoubtedly moviegoers, found the depiction of gays offensive. I find the obvious staging of guerrilla comedy routines under the guise of spontaneity far more offensive.