You wouldn’t think a movie featuring a talking penis could be boring, but you’d be wrong. I have proof, and that proof is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno.
Cohen proved himself a blazing pioneer of 21st century guerilla comedy with 2006’s Borat, in which he played a mustachioed, childlike misogynist who travels to America as a cultural ambassador from Kazakhstan, wandering the country with a camera crew as he insults women and Jews, stalks Pamela Anderson, and embarrasses unsuspecting bigots. It was a shocking, deeply offensive film — one that left you doubled over and gasping for air with laughter even as you intellectually recoiled from what was unfolding on the screen, and the kind of phenomenon that really can’t be repeated.
He had to try anyway, of course. It didn’t work, but you can’t fault him for the effort.
What you can blame Cohen for is Brüno, a pale shadow of Borat that feels, at times, like the kind of hackwork perpetrated by people trying to ride a popular film’s coattails by putting together something that looks and feels kind of like it, but misses the point almost entirely. Like Borat, Brüno asks you to take its central character as seriously as his unwitting victims did, and begins with a prelude that’s supposed to establish his backstory. There’s a crucial difference, though — while Borat held some pretty vile views, he was clearly an idiot and more or less a friendly guy; Brüno, on the other hand, is little more than a fame-hungry elitist. Both Borat and Brüno are basically awful people, but Borat had a childlike quality that made it possible to enjoy his company. Brüno is just an asshole.
And then there’s the matter of Brüno‘s comedy, which is even more uneven than Borat‘s, and dishwater weak in comparison. Part of Borat‘s brutal impact lay in the fact that the butts of its jokes deserved what they got, and the way it highlighted casual racism in modern America was something like a public service. Brüno, on the other hand, is just kind of confused — in parts, it wants to lampoon celebrity culture; in others, it’s a savage expose of prejudice against homosexuals. But Brüno‘s celebrity targets haven’t done anything to deserve their treatment — you just kind of feel bad for Paula Abdul and Ron Paul during what are otherwise fairly inspired segments — and Cohen goes so far out of his way to antagonize his audience in the latter scenes, eventually making out with another man in a cage in front of an audience duped into thinking they were attending an MMA bout, that they don’t really work the way they’re supposed to. You end up feeling like the movie is perpetually warming up for something better, but it never gets there; in fact, it wraps up suddenly with a moronic, out-of-the-blue all-star music video. The end.
That said, Brüno doesn’t make for a terrible rental, particularly with the extra content, some of which — such as the very entertaining behind-the-scenes commentary from Cohen and director Larry Charles — is actually more entertaining than the film. You also get over an hour of deleted and alternate scenes, including typically absurd interviews with La Toya Jackson and Pete Rose, and since even the worst of Cohen’s fake interviews are better than the storyline bits that pad out the movie, these add quite a bit to the overall experience. Brüno seems to have been Cohen’s farewell to this style of “real” in-character comedy, and that’s obviously for the best; in fact, it really would have been better if he’d quit after Borat. But if you keep your expectations low, Brüno (also available on DVD and Video on Demand) offers a passable diversion for fans of rude and borderline pornographic comedy.
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