Brüno is upon us, and my reaction to the film is twofold: this film is hilarious, make no mistake, but—and this is a rather big and somewhat disparaging but—this is almost the exact same movie as Borat.
If one were to examine the two films via split screen, play them side by side, one might be surprised by how lazy success has made Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles (who helmed Borat as well). In fact, the most shocking thing about Brüno is not all the outrageous, borderline suicidal stunts the actor pulls off (and there are many), but how familiar and—dare I say—on the cusp of staleness the whole thing is.
In my review of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, I opened with strong words, quoting comedian George Carlin and extolling Cohen as a comedian reinventing the genre. I even went so far as to call him a genius, and subsequently listed Borat as my number 4 film of 2006. I still stand behind my hyperbolic review and my assertion that it was the fourth best film of that year.
I was in the majority here. It was widely agreed by critics and audiences that Borat did give us something new, and it was hilarious, and it became a massive hit around the world. Most importantly, it made Cohen a star. It was, in every sense of the cliché, lightning in a bottle. When it was announced soon after the film’s success that Cohen would bring us his third character, Brüno, from the great two-season HBO series Da Ali G Show, to the big screen as his next major project (after varying success with supporting turns in Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd, and the second Madagascar movie) I was both excited to see if he could actually pull off the same trick again, and a little worried that the whole shtick might wear thin.
If you consider Brüno as a sequel (a better term would be retread, actually), then it only confirms the law of diminishing returns we so often see in movies made to capitalize on the success of something new and fresh. Liked that first Matrix movie? Here are two sequels that will undoubtedly disappoint (though I do have a fondness for them, especially Reloaded, they are lesser films to be sure). Gone is the clandestine vigor that characterized all 82 minutes of Borat (coincidentally, or more likely not, the same length as Brüno give or take a minute). This is strong evidence that Borat was the apogee of Cohen’s schtick. It will be near impossible for him to surprise us again. If he does, I will tip my hat and yell from the rooftops again, but Brüno doesn’t merit that.
So how similar are the two films? There’s that running time for starters, which I appreciate since these films would surely buckle under a longer edit. It’s refreshing that Cohen and co. didn’t indulge their every whim. The story structures are identical in both films, even down to the “8 months later” title cards. We open with Brüno showing us his town in Austria, introducing us to him and his television show in which he decides what’s in or out (autism is in, apparently). Then he sets off to America driving a goofy vehicle (the old ice cream truck in Borat is replaced by one of those miniature fuel-efficient cars here) with his assistant, who will play a huge role in the plot. A series of mishaps and anti-badinage interviews with unsuspecting celebrities and Neanderthals (often the same thing in Brüno) follow, all leading to uncomfortable, disconcerting evidence of the very worst our country has to offer, and ending with a big climactic prank. Any of this ring a bell? I’m only scratching the surface.
But Brüno, despite its tired, regurgitated construction, had me laughing. Consistently. More consistently than this year’s very funny, but flawed comedy hit, The Hangover. It won’t go down as the classic that Borat is destined to become, but I guess that’s fine. I was hoping for more from Cohen, but hopefully he can now consider himself finished with this old material and move on. He’s already said in interviews that he’ll never do this again, and no doubt the film will make truckloads of money, so I hope the doughty comedic genius (there’s that word again) of Cohen will be given more power to concoct more twisted creations.
Make no mistake that this is absolutely, positively not a homophobic, hate-filled screed upon which Cohen essentially plays a new version of blackface (he’s been railed at by some in the gay community for this very thing). The character is meant to be an exaggeration so as to point out the discomfort and hate still boiling in certain sects of this country. Essentially, this is a funny way of looking at a terrifying realization. Our country has progressed—but how far, really? I will say that Cohen presents a skewed demographic of America and its fear of homosexuality, but his intention is to make a narrative film with documentary elements about fictional character existing in some version of our real world. Unfair or not, these people say and do the things we see on screen; whether they are duped doesn’t matter. Ignorance and hate of this level should not be forgiven.
I do hope that audiences realize what Cohen is after, and think about why they are laughing at this movie. Of course, we’re all entitled to our opinions and interpretations of any film, but what Cohen does in the two films is scary for how it could be misunderstood and used for douchebaggery instead of good (oddly enough, that’s also a worry I have about the wild success of The Hangover).
The biggest flaw of Brüno is its very last scene, which follows the film’s highlight set piece at a UFC-like event in Arkansas that I won’t spoil here, except to say that Cohen and his costar were lucky to escape their caged rampart from the oncoming affray that results. Over the credits we are treated to a host of celebrity singers (you’ll recognize every one) singing a song that drives home the point of the entire film. It’s a tad insulting of the filmmakers to not trust the audience here, but I suspect it’s a rebuttal to all the negative criticism Cohen has gotten already for the film and its character.
Brüno’s frustrating familiarity may work for many. After all, I love, and often defend, the films of Wes Anderson for that very reason. He makes his films his way, and that’s what I like about his work. The film works as a comedy with a ton of laughs, but I’ll be glad to see Cohen move on from here.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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