Saturday, July 11, 2009

Review - Brüno

I suppose there never was much chance I'd warm to Brüno, the new film from director Larry Charles and star Sacha Baron Cohen. After all, I didn't really care for their 2006 hit Borat either, and this is essentially the same movie, with a different, slightly weaker character taking centre stage. Brüno was always the lesser of the three comic alter egos Cohen conceived for Da Ali G Show, and it comes as no surprise that this shrill, one-note creation is incapable of carrying a feature, even one that clocks in at a shade over eighty minutes. Brüno spends that time travelling across America, finding groups and individuals who would be particularly uncomfortable in the presence of a flamboyant homosexual, and he proceeds to make innuendos and advances until they (a) walk out of the interview, (b) sit in awkward silence or (c) attack Cohen, forcing him to flee the scene. Parts of Brüno are amusing – just as parts of Borat were – but Cohen's shtick gets old very, very quickly.

Brüno is first introduced as a fashion presenter on Austrian TV, with his show Funkyzeit mit Brüno being, "The most popular fashion show in any German-speaking country...apart from Germany." He is a ludicrous creation, decked out in ridiculous outfits and spouting malapropisms in his cod-Austrian accent, but within the confines of the fashion industry, he's no more ridiculous than many of the people surrounding him. When he experiments disastrously with a velcro suit during Milan Fashion Week, however, Brüno quickly becomes persona non grata in the fashion world, and instead decides to travel to the United States to find fame by any means possible. That's the film's plot, but "plot" is perhaps not the right word, as it's basically a loose, ramshackle narrative that Cohen and Charles use as an excuse to string together a series of interchangeable sketches.

What follows is extremely hit-and-miss. Fans of Borat often claimed that it was a great work of social commentary, which exposed the ignorance and prejudices of his victims, but I always felt that it was a cheap stunt, taking down easy targets and saying nothing of significance. Brüno's most effective angle is perhaps the way in which he targets the public's hunger for fame, and their desire to do anything to achieve it. The best scene occurs after he has adopted an African baby, and he is holding auditions for other infants to take part in a controversial photoshoot. Brüno interviews a few parents and asks them what they would allow their child to do, asking if their baby is OK with lit phosphorus, being in a car without a seatbelt, or playing with heavy machinery. In all instances, the parents confirm that they'd be happy for their child to do whatever it takes to get the job. One mother, asked if her baby could lose 10lbs within a week, says that she could, and admits she'd consider liposuction if necessary.

The desperation and venality of these people is shocking, but it's the only moment in Brüno that has any significant impact. Cohen relies too often on the same setups and penis jokes, and the film becomes predictable as his antics repeatedly produce the expected result. Ron Paul walks out of an interview when Brüno starts making advances towards him; Paula Abdul does the same when she is asked to eat food from the chest of a naked, hairy man. When a nude Brüno tries to get into a hunter's tent at 3am, the hunter eventually loses his temper, as does the man at a swinger's party, who snaps when Brüno won't leave him alone as he's trying to have sex. Where is the gag in putting these people in uncomfortable situations, being pestered by a shrieking idiot, and watching them try to react in as polite and tolerant a manner as possible before finally deciding enough's enough? In one short clip, Brüno accosts Harrison Ford for an interview outside a restaurant. Ford simply growls, "Fuck off," and I empathised. In fact, I wanted to repeat the same phrase during Brüno's ghastly climactic sequence, when he is joined by Bono, Elton John, Sting and others to record his charity single – all of them so desperate to be seen as being in on the joke – but Brüno is a one-joke movie, and it beats that joke into the ground.

Sacha Baron Cohen is at an interesting juncture in his career right now. There's no doubting the man's talent or his Andy Kaufman-like dedication to his art, but there is a question mark against the way he has used it, making two films in which he essentially mocks and sneers at everyone he meets, no matter how they have behaved towards him. I've enjoyed his comic turns in both Talladega Nights and Sweeney Todd, and I know he has the ability to take his career in any direction he likes. Part of Cohen's genius is for courting publicity, and one hopes he is now too recognisable to make any more of these undercover prank movies. Brüno is one long dick joke, and ultimately Cohen himself comes off looking worse than any of his targets, appearing as a smug, condescending and cruel trickster. I think he's better than that, and now I hope he goes on to prove it.