Knight at the Movies Archives
Sacha Baron Cohen once again gives his all in order to get laughs
Sacha Baron Cohen may be the first comedian in history who will die in order to get a laugh. That was the first thing I thought when
I came out of Bruno, the extreme “gotcha” comedy from Baron Cohen in which his character, the brainless gay “über fashionista”
goes from one outrageous set piece to another. Not whether the character would be offensive to gay audiences (more about that
later) but whether Baron Cohen the high wire comedian will one day push the envelope too far in his quest for laughs.
Like Andy Kaufman, Baron Cohen is a performer who gets so into character that given the opportunity (and the right comedic foil) he
can quickly arrive at a place where comedy can turn to ugly reality. In front of your eyes he dares himself to go further and further –
you can see him taunting himself in order to make the situations even more dangerous and for an understandable reason: the
majority of the laughs come from his sheer audacity and his willingness to do this. The anti-Semite Borat character brought with it a
flurry of lawsuits, buckets of cash and a challenge to raise the bar which the hilarious Bruno willfully does. But how far can this
comedic terrorist go before he pisses off the wrong person as the cameras are rolling?
Baron Cohen’s comedy relies on portraying flagrantly stereotypical characters and then presenting these characters to their real life
counterparts or their polar opposites (also stereotypes of humanity) who play right into his hands. When Baron Cohen’s in character
all the world really is a stage and the great unwashed – and lots of unsuspecting folks from the lunatic fringe – make up his
supporting cast. So, when portraying the über gay Bruno it’s easy to guess from whence the comedy will spring. Look out rednecks,
conservatives and all manner of fame seeking wannabes – Bruno’s loose and he’s about to record your idiocy and homophobia for
the world to laugh hysterically at.
When we meet Bruno he’s the host of an Austrian fashion program who happily demonstrates seemingly every position of anal
intercourse in the Kama Sutra with his self-described “Pygmy flight attendant boyfriend” while describing his life in his fractured, faux
German accent. But after a mishap with an outfit made entirely out of velcro lands him headfirst on the runway in Milan and next in
jail, Bruno finds himself out of a job and a breakup with the boyfriend soon after. With only his devoted assistant Lutz in tow Bruno
heads to America in his quest to become “the biggest Austrian since Adolph Hitler.”
Like Lucy and Ethel, Bruno and Lutz are soon engaged in an increasingly extreme series of schemes in order for Bruno to attain
worldwide recognition – or at the very least, a few tabloid covers. About 20 minutes in when a focus group made up of “regular folks”
are shown a TV pilot starring Bruno that features a segment with his dancing, singing penis one thinks, “How much farther can he
go? How high can the bar be set that he won’t eagerly leap over it?” Based on the hilarious evidence that ensues, pretty damn
high. The gotchas include a Hollywood agent, Milan runway models and designers, Paula Abdul (who sits on “Mexican furniture
people”), former Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul (who Bruno comes onto), two idiot chick publicists, a psychic, etc.
Bruno next takes a trip to Alabama to become an ex-gay when he notices, tongue in cheek, that big movie stars like Tom Cruise,
John Travolta, and Kevin Spacey are straight. He tells his “converter” as the guy talks Jesus and redemption that the man has “blow
job lips” and wonders if he’ll be able to continue to play the clarinet if he doesn’t imagine certain activities while so engaged. A stint
in the national guard, a hunting trip with three “good ole boys” and a sex party with a swingers group that finds Bruno trapped in a
bedroom with a persistent dominatrix sporting basketball sized implants who repeatedly smacks him with a belt follow. (I don’t care
what your sexual persuasion is – that dominatrix is scary as hell.) The incongruities build toward the sure to be infamous wrestling
cage match sequence that comes at the end of the picture. Here the comic insanity reaches a fever pitch as Cohen purposely plays
into the crowd’s homophobia.
The picture points out again and again – as Borat did – that for a comic terrorist like Sacha Baron Cohen America must surely be
nirvana. The possibilities of finding idiotic folks ready to do anything for some camera face time based on the evidence here is
seemingly limitless. Though it’s obvious that some of the bits are staged many of them appear shockingly, dangerously to be
happening before our eyes in real time. Even the carefully edited pieces contain one jaw dropping shock after another. Are people
really this stupid? This homophobic? This narcissistic? One of the most shocking sequences comes when Bruno, after having
adopted an African baby he names “OJ” asks the parents of baby models what they will and won’t allow their babies to do in front of
the camera. Their answers are a lot more startling than the sight of Bruno wrestling around with a giant dildo.
So is it offensive to gays? That’s the first question everyone asked me as I left the screening. Not an unexpected question
considering my position as the film critic for a LGBT publication. My instinctual answer: no. Oh, I’m sure there are going to be a lot
of people – gay and straight – offended by the outrageous havoc (much of it easily categorized as vulgar on one end, obscene on
another) that Baron Cohen/Bruno creates – the folks who just won’t get that Baron Cohen’s playing on stereotypes, those who are
made nervous by his in your face approach, or find the material just too one note and insipid (as I found much of Borat to be).
But there is something to be said about not just being in on the joke but being the reason for it in the first place. I understand why
close Jewish friends had no problem with the stereotyping in Borat and why they can gleefully sing “Throw the Jew Down the Well”
verbatim to this day. I’ll be quoting lines from Bruno along with many of both my queer – and I suspect – straight brethren long
after Baron Cohen has moved on to his next outrage. A comedy that can present gay stereotypes in such a blatant, over the top
manner that they can make one laugh uncontrollably? Expose ignorant homophobes right and farther right? And throw in several
curve balls on our celebrity obsessed culture and touch on several hot button issues central to Our People at the same time? Sign
me up girlfriend. Two snaps up. Way up.
An Enormous Schwanstucker:
Expanded Edition of 7-8-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
CHECK OUT OTHER KATM FILM REVIEWS IN THE ARCHIVES