Directed by: Larry Charles (Religulous)
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Bañagale, Elton John, Bono, Sting
Note carefully: It is virtually impossible for a movie to offend me (insulting my intelligence is a different kind of offense) or embarrass me, and while I’m not sure I can go so far as to say that Brüno quite did either, it did on occasion make me slightly uncomfortable. So, if you are easily offended, for goodness’ sake, ignore the four-star rating and stay the hell away from this movie. If you look no further than the four-star rating, don’t blame me.
Assuming that the reader has at least some familiarity with Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 assault on the moviegoing public, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (thank God for copy-paste functions), the approach of Brüno will come as no surprise. Where the previous film offered us Baron Cohen as the befuddled, English-mangling Borat Sagdiyev, Brüno gives us Brüno, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista with a taste for unearned fame and an intellect that would embarrass a hamster.
As with the last film, the basics are a weird blend of applying the techniques of Candid Camera to the premise of The Magic Christian (1969) and filtering it through a kind of John Waters sensibility. In other words, scenarios are set up to put people on (à la Magic Christian), except that the responses are theoretically not scripted, but are the actual responses of the victims. The question inevitably—and fairly—arises as to how unscripted those responses are. My guess—based on seeing the film—is that they’re around 75 percent real, 15 percent bogus and 10 percent the result of clever editing. Even when they’re real, however, there’s a tendency for them to be something like hunting in a baited field.
The stakes are upped this time around in that Brüno is out to uncover homophobia—as well as comment on our growing inability to differentiate between fame and notoriety—which makes the film more daring in some ways and more strained in others. To achieve its goal, Brüno is crafted to be the ultimate incarnation of every nervous straight boy’s nightmare of homosexuality—the über predatory gay caricature who desires every man he sees. In real life, it’s almost always a given that the guys most worried about being the object of another man’s erotic fantasy are the ones who couldn’t get picked up on Christopher Street on New Year’s Eve. Brüno, however, fulfills their deepest fears. On the one hand, that’s squarely in the “serves you right” column, but it’s also a stacked deck that can be viewed as pandering to a stereotype of gays. None of this keeps Brüno from being interesting and sometimes uncomfortably perceptive. The contradiction may in fact make Brüno more so, but it does need to be considered.
The question, of course, is ultimately whether or not Brüno is funny. More often than not, the answer is yes—assuming the viewer isn’t too appalled by its designed-to-shock antics. Occasionally, the shocks fall flat or are simply off-putting (a mimed encounter with the invisible spirit of the deceased half of Milli Vanilli is awkward and creepy). At other points, they’re effective without being very funny (like Ron Paul’s response to Brüno’s attempts at seducing him). Often, the film is at its best in fleeting moments or throwaway gags—as when Brüno decides that Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey are famous because of their one shared trait: being straight—but there are enough of these to get Brüno past its rough patches.
There are jaw-dropping moments that approach brilliance. The interviews with stage parents who will subject their toddlers to anything in order to get them a job are staggeringly appalling and funny. Brüno constantly coming on to the guy who is supposed to be “de-programming” his gayness is priceless. The movie’s big scene—its equivalent to the rodeo scene in Borat—is an unabashed lift from the throwaway gag about a boxing match in The Magic Christian, but taken to elaborate extremes, and it works both as comedy and social comment. But the best is probably the final scene, which I will not spoil by discussing.
If you’ve the nerve for it, yes, Brüno is worth your time, but be prepared to be shocked and possibly disgusted in between the laughs—or even during the laughs. Realize what you’re getting yourself into. Rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language.