Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review: Brüno

Dir. Larry Charles
Year: 2009
Aus Rating: R18+ MA15+
Running Time: 82mins

Like its predecessor, Borat, the latest film from the actor/director pair of Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles sees an eccentric foreigner try their hand at touring America. The last of Cohen's three famous characters to receive the feature treatment, it can't be denied that "Brüno" is his most controversial. Everyone seems to have an opinion of this character; Is he homophobic, is he mean-spirited, is he witless and simply unfunny? For me, I would say the answers are no, a little bit, perhaps and definitely not.

That gay people are up in arms of this character is not quite as baffling as the arguments they are using to fire at him. Websites such as Towleroad have been overrun by readers claiming Cohen is guilty of "queerface" and putting on "a gay minstrel show". I'm not quite sure when it became wrong for straight actors to portray gay characters, which is what they are implying by alluding to controversial themes such as blackface, but I find it hard to fathom. I don't remember anybody getting their jocks in a twist when Neil Patrick Harris did a vulgar impersonation of a heterosexual in the Harold & Kumar movies. Maybe because straight people know he's an actor and that, as their profession, they have to play different people? I'm not sure...

I imagine a lot of the gay men criticising Brüno are the same oh-so-serious pompous people who think all gay men should be "normal" straight-acting guys so as to not offend the actual straight people whose approval they so desperately seek. What I find surprising is that there are plenty of heterosexuals who are as overt about their sexuality as Brüno is about his - there's even a scene from the movie demonstrating that - so what is so bad? Yes, Cohen is straight, but getting into the situations that he does would be entirely ineffective if he played him as some sort of regular everyman. The humour comes from the fact this this character is so absurd. If any of the anti-gay people he comes across think he is a representation of every gay man on Earth then there are bigger problems to worry about than Sacha Baron Cohen running around in shiny short shorts.

But to say that Cohen is poking fun at homosexuals, being homophobic in effect, completely misses the point. If anything, the character of Brüno is an attack on the vacuous cult of celebrity and the idea that stupidity is a worthier attribute for fame than talent. Has there been a more disturbing trend in the last decade? The likes of Paris Hilton and whatshername from The Hills can become famous for doing absolutely nothing of any merit. That Brüno is gay is almost besides the point. That the characters' homosexuality helps elicit such strong actual homophobic attitudes out of the real life personalities that he comes across is probably just an obvious and disturbing side effect.

And actual homophobic responses is exactly what he gets from many of the people in the film. While I have no doubt that Brüno has more staged elements than its predecessor, I am also positive that the hardcore negative reactions to his character, as seen in the film, are genuine. Of course, that this character is shoving his flamboyant personality into the face of these characters doesn't help. There is an underlying sense of meanness that comes up on occasion; I'd be angry too if I had to witness some of the things Cohen subjects people to, but there are moments here that are just unforgettable in their braveness and their ability to shock and awe. The final scene, a cage fight involving Brüno as "Straight Dave", in particular brings out the nasty attitudes out of onlookers and it's a horrifying site to behold.

However, sliding around on top of all this seriousness is a very funny movie, and it's sometimes easy to let that slip by. There are scenes in Brüno that have to be seen to be believed. My mind wanders specifically towards the scene involving the ghost of late Milli Vanilli member Rob Pilatus. Another featuring Brüno showing a pilot episode of his celebrity-based program to a focus group is another. "Abort it!" is just another example of the sword that Cohen delicately balances on.

And yet the film isn't so constantly uproariously funny enough to forgive its misgivings. At barely 80 minutes long, I can't deny that I felt like there should be more. Opportunities were completely thrown away - a joke about Tom Cruise and John Travolta should have resulted in a delicious visit to a Scientology clinic, but the opportunity goes by and isn't capitalised on. The direction by Larry Charles, too, feels off on occasions. Moments that are obviously staged feel at odds with those that are not while there are moments where the energy nosedives and I hoped the next skit would begin. In this regard, especially, is where it draws a negative comparison to Borat.

Nevertheless, Brüno is a fascinating and dangerously hysterical movie that more than warrants a viewing. I can't say whether you will like it or not as this is probably a clear and finite definition of a movie to which everybody will have their own unique reaction. I will say this though; If you're gay and willing to laugh at yourself and our culture that, let's be honest, can on occasion become a caricature of itself, then there will probably be plenty here to interest you. And even if that isn't the case then the jokes about autism, Britney Spears' sister, vapid runway models, "cock-sucking lips", Salma Hayek and bulimia will probably elicit at least a couple of genuine hearty laughs. B

PS; I do wonder how many deleted scenes the DVD will have. The Australian release has been edited to receive a lesser rating (originally the very restrictive R18+) which involved deleting, I am told, something to do with pygmy sex. There is Brüno's trip to Walmart (seen in the trailer, but not in the movie) and I do wonder if they'll include the now infamous Latoya Jackson scene. Will be very interesting, indeed.

No comments: