Monday, July 20, 2009

485 - Bruno review

“Bruno” is a comedy that could double as a horror for a lot of the people I know. Its content is so hyper-sexual that it stops just a millimeter short of pornography and the methods through which the humor is mined are morally uneasy at best, repugnant at worst.

The titular character is played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who elevates putting on a disguise and upsetting people a perverse art form. Those familiar with Baron Cohen’s earlier work in “Da Ali G Show” or “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” will know what to expect but for those not in the know, imagine an episode of “Candid Camera” if the host was a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion guru, the gags largely involved projecting ridiculously exaggerated sexual zeal onto the victims, and there were no good-natured laughs when the joke was over.

The story, which sees scripted sequences mesh with the comi-tragically real, follows Bruno as he leaves behind his idyllic life as an Austrian TV personality to pursue Hollywood stardom. Bereft of acting or musical talent, Bruno decides that a shortcut to fame is needed: interviews with big stars, a sex tape, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an African baby, and eventually, a sexual orientation realignment. “Bruno” invites us to not only laugh at Baron Cohen, but at those poor fools who find themselves the unwitting butt of 2009’s biggest gay joke.

Consider a scene that sees Bruno attempting to score a sex tape with Ron Paul (R-TX), a 2008 presidential candidate. I met Paul during one of his stops in Iowa, and during the three or so minutes we chatted, he struck me as a very nice man. In “Bruno,” Paul must flee the lewd sexual advances of a purported TV interviewer. It’s a funny scenario, but I felt uneasy laughing once the cruelty was considered.

Other scenes are easier. One gag sees Bruno interviewing would-be stage parents for a photography shoot involving their children. “Is your son comfortable working around lit phosphorous?” he asks one enthusiastic parent who replies “He loves it.” And the film’s funniest scene and climax sees Bruno travel to Arkansas, where he arranges a cage match under the identity of “Straight Dave.”

As with “Borat,” people are already rushing to gauge “Bruno” by its supposed social and political messages. Indeed, the film functions as a moral and political Rorschach of sorts, able to be seen as a strike against homophobia, an insult to homosexuals, both, or something in-between. I, however, would suggest that anyone expecting such a thing will likely have to invent it, because Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are in it strictly for the laughs (chuckles make money, messages don’t). It’s no surprise that some in the gay community have objected; a plea for tolerance and understanding this bombastic riot is not.

Baron Cohen goes way beyond the obvious gags for “Bruno,” and even for an individual who seemingly lacks a line to cross or dignity to injure, his devotion borders on frightening. One sequence sees him travel to Lebanon to interview the head of a terrorist group, a talk that opens with Bruno lambasting the leader’s hair. Though I do not profess an expertise in Middle Eastern terrorism, it certainly appears possible that Baron Cohen could get himself killed. The star of a comedy hasn’t risked his life so memorably since Buster Keaton was saved by the window of a falling house.

3.5 out of 5

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