Thursday, July 9, 2009

Laughing at Bruno, but cringing, too

Here's the thing about "Bruno," the second film featuring one of Sacha Baron Cohen's stock characters, an aggressively gay Austrian fashionista who hosts a TV program called "Funkyzeit." Before you purchase a ticket, you need to know that Baron Cohen's follow-up to "Borat" pushes the envelope in terms of its depictions of outlandish gay sex.

If the idea of watching Bruno receive an anal bleaching treatment sounds unappealing or if you've never longed to watch Bruno try to turn dildos into weapons or if you don't think the sight of a talking penis sounds funny or -- this is the last one -- if you can live without seeing an exercise machine rigged for anal penetration, it's best to head in another direction.

Although "Bruno" is not as funny as "Borat," it's far more transgressive, and it has an even heavier hostility quotient, one that extends into the movie's finale, a cage match in which a stunned Arkansas audience of rednecks pelts Bruno and his lover (Gustaf Hammarsten) with everything from beer cups to a chair. The crowd doesn't appreciate the fact that they attended a cage fight and a gay lovefest broke out.

Moreover, Bruno's out-sized ego (he refers to himself as the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler) can make the blond, proudly vacuous spotlight-seeker difficult to take, even over the course of 82 minutes. The premise of the movie: Bruno loses his Austrian TV show and heads to LA, where he hopes to become a celebrity. The man really wants to be famous -- and doesn't care how he achieves his goal.

A word about hostility and humor: The hostility expressed by an intelligent comic -- and Baron Cohen is no dope -- can stem from a desire to degrade those who avidly uphold the world's worst hypocrisies. But unlike other comics, Baron Cohen's hostility works in two directions. It can be aimed at some of the movie's unwitting participants and also at the audience. It's a double whammy of a kind rarely seen in films. Some will interpret the humor in "Bruno" as homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic (yes, Cohen's Jewish) and unfair. Maybe. Mostly, though, I agree with those who see Baron Cohen as a satirist who's so outrageous that any one with half a brain can see through the jokes. But that doesn't mean the jokes always work.

Take Congressman Ron Paul. At one point, he calls Bruno a queer. Of course Bruno treats the Congressman unfairly, inviting him to his hotel room under the guise of doing an interview and then stripping in front of the Congressman. Bruno explains all this by telling us that he has confused Ron Paul and Ru Paul, an idea that's more preposterous than funny. A bit in which Bruno tries to negotiate an agreement between a former Israeli official and a man identified as a terrorist proves funnier. The two antagonists stop arguing long enough to inform Bruno that he has confused Hamas with hummus.

The early gags -- a bizarre interview with Paula Abdul, for example -- tend to be the movie's funniest, but as "Bruno" progresses, it becomes clear that the movie lacks the same degree of cracked credibility as "Borat." Some of the scenes -- Bruno in an Army barracks, for example -- seem as if they had to have been staged. And other bits have a repellent quality: A scene in which Bruno -- in an attempt to go straight -- joins a group of swingers leaves you wondering why any of the participants agreed to be filmed.

Baron Cohen remains an original, but "Bruno" mixes hilarity with material that makes you cringe. At one point, Bruno attempts to interview Harrison Ford by shoving a microphone in his face. Ford, who evidently doesn't take kindly to such intrusions, tells Bruno to get lost. Much of the audience may share Ford's sentiment. As a character, Bruno is harder to take than the gleefully ignorant Borat, who had a measure of innocence about him.

Me? I laughed a lot, but -- at the same time -- I was disappointed by the sheer ugliness of some of Bruno's encounters, the cage fight being a prime example. And I say that as a diehard fan of the show where I first saw all these characters, HBO's "Da Ali G Show."

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