Brazen and fearless in his pursuit of laughs, Sacha Baron Cohen has certainly got balls. Shame he has to show them off so often.
Following the rampant success of his mockumentary comedy Borat, Baron Cohen sticks his brass neck out again with Brüno, another exercise in guerrilla filmmaking that seeks to expose prejudice, send up pretension and leave the viewer either squirming with embarrassment or laughing like a drain.
The third, after Ali G and Borat, of Baron Cohen’s trio of spoof screen alter-egos, Brüno is a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter and his big-screen adventure follows a familiar trajectory – after getting sacked from his TV show Funkyzeit Mit Brüno, he travels to the US in a bid to become a celebrity.
If you saw Borat, you’ll know what to expect. Without dropping the mask of his outrageous character, Baron Cohen pulls various stunts and pranks on members of the public, and the odd famous person, leaving his victims exposed to the ridicule of those sitting in the safety of their cinema seats.
In so doing, he treads a very thin line, deliberately courting offence while staging ever more shameless provocations – attempting to seduce Republican congressman Ron Paul in his hotel room, inviting Paula Abdul to eat food off the body of a naked Mexican gardener, or baiting a predominantly African-American TV talk show audience by showing off his African adopted son, ‘OJ’.
How does he get away with it? His defenders claim that he creates scurrilous caricatures in order to unmask bigotry and narrow-mindedness, but too often he seems to be reinforcing prejudice rather than undermining it.
One scene has Brüno visiting a psychic for advice on how to achieve fame. He asks to get in touch with a deceased member of shamed pop act Milli Vanilli and then mimes a series of increasingly explicit sex acts with the invisible singer while the phlegmatic spiritualist looks on. What is the point of the scene? Is it to expose the charlatanry of psychics? Well, I never! Is it to make the cinema audience uncomfortable by flaunting mimed depictions of gay sex? Well, who’s to say an equally flagrant mime of heterosexual sex wouldn’t have created similar discomfort.
In any case, the joke is now beginning to wear thin. Most of Brüno’s interactions with his unwitting stooges are pretty lame and you wonder how many hours of filming he had to go through to get even this paltry footage.
Yet there is one sequence that does come off. It finds Brüno (or should that be Baron Cohen) adopting the role of ‘Straight Dave’ and whipping up a crowd of frenzied, hollering fans as the host of a cage-fighting event. The crowd’s mood soon changes, though, when Straight Dave’s bout with his opponent (Brüno’s estranged assistant Lutz) turns into lovemaking – an audacious (and brave!) way of highlighting the latent homoeroticism buried in mano a mano fighting. The combination of dismay, repugnance and confusion on the fans’ faces is striking – but the scene is conceptually successful rather than actually amusing.
Brüno might have been funnier if its protagonist had stayed longer in the fashion world: the brief sequence that presents a flouncing Brüno creating mayhem on the runway at a fashion show displays Baron Cohen’s genuine gifts for physical comedy. Wouldn’t real-life fashionistas have provided Brüno with rich comic pickings? Perhaps. I suspect, though, that by now the fashion world has got too wise to Baron Cohen’s tricks.
So too, increasingly, will Baron Cohen’s future potential dupes. I certainly hope so. His old shtick is producing diminishing returns. He’s a brilliant comedian, though, and delivered hilarious cameos in Talladega Nights and Sweeney Todd. In future, I think he should put Brüno back in the dressing-up box and, ahem, stick to straight roles
On general release from 10th July.
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