Sunday, July 12, 2009

Full-Frontal Fashionista


I'm going to start with mentioning that during the screening I went to of "Bruno," somebody threw up directly after the title character presented the creative ways he and his partner entertain each other in the bedroom. This scene on its own had to be edited to prevent the movie from getting an NC-17 rating. This is the hardest R-rating we've come to see in a very long time. While you might have thought Sacha Baron Cohen set his limits with 2006's "Borat," his latest feature, yet again directed by Larry Charles, pushes the boundaries far beyond the edge of all that is even questionable. From miming an entire blow job to receiving anal bleaching, Bruno cannot even be labeled as flamboyant as that wouldn't be doing him justice. Baron Cohen is a phenomenal character actor, and he has created a foreigner that he uses to comment on America's own hypocritical, judgmental, and fake-accepting social culture. Sound familiar? Well, that's because it is. While "Borat" was a landmark comedy sensation, the novelty is inevitably lost during a second run.

As a gay fashionista, Bruno gets outed from his native Austria after an incident involving a Velcro outfit that he wears to a fashion show, which ends in disaster. This forces him to journey over to America with his assistant's assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), where he hopes to become, as he likes to say, the biggest gay celebrity since Arnold Swarchenegger. He tries falling into stardom through many different outlets, including attempting to meet celebrities, making his own show, adopting a black baby from Africa and taking him on "The Richard Bey Show," and trying to contribute to a worthy cause in the Middle East. If George Clooney's already got Darfur, then Bruno wants to know how he can tackle Darfive. And the best part? The supposedly charitable bimbos to whom Bruno talks aren't any more knowledgeable. Moments when Cohen's unsuspecting victims are revealed at their lowest are when the movie strikes genius. Consider the moment where starving parents will do anything to get their child to be a star. Have them strung up on a crucifix or have them dress up as a Nazi? No problem.

While some of the aim is on celebrity materialism, most of the ammunition is saved to address intolerance. There's a scene where Bruno decides he could get famous by making a sex tape. The entirely innocent politician Ron Paul does an interview with Bruno that turns into an act of attempted seduction. It's understandable that Ron Paul becomes outraged and storms out, but it's no reason for him to go shout the word "queer" before the cameras are turned off. Bruno later decides that the only way he's going to become famous is to become straight. He visits two ministers in Alabama who are there to "cure" homosexuality, he attends a bizarre swingers' party where misogyny is fine but gays aren't, he has an accidental run-in with a "God Hates Fags" protest while strapped naked to Lutz with kinky bondage, and he even goes as far as to host an allegedly straight wrestling bash that turns just the opposite and gets the previously pumped-up audience angry with tears.

Even more so than with "Borat," this time the laughs are mixed in with many other reactions that shift between astonishment, repulsion, disgust, and pure shock. It's still very funny, yes, but the awkward situations between Bruno and his victims hold an uncomfortable tone that begs the question, "Is this for real?" For the most part, you may end up laughing simply because you cannot believe what you're witnessing. And it's because the targets are being aimed at with a crueler and more biting tone than last time. While the scenes described above succeed, others fall flat and ultimately feel unnecessary and forced. "Bruno" is also a better-looking movie than "Borat" with higher production values, but this also suggests that more setups this time were perhaps staged, over which there could be endless debate. And the music video at the end with A-list celebrities all being in on the joke feels tacked on because even though the likes of Snoop Dogg, Bono, and Elton John are in on it, they don't seem to be enjoying it.

If you take the offensive, in-your-face vulgarities at face value, and if you take the gay stereotype of Bruno at face value, then you miss the scalding point. Even with its flaws, even with the fact that the balancing act between sophisticated and stupid sometimes tips too far to the latter, even though the outrageous gags sometimes go too far, even though the good bad taste sometimes spills over into just bad taste, and even though it's much more scattershot than "Borat," there is something at work behind this latest creation from Sacha Baron Cohen. With "Bruno," he turns a mirror back on our own prejudices through outlandish humor.

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