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Film Reviews

Bruno

Out Rage: Sacha Baron Cohen risks another hilarious, daring cultural critique in Bruno.

By MaryAnn Johanson
Posted // July 8,2009 -

There are always angry questions bandied about in the wake of any work by Sacha Baron Cohen, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ask this one: “How far should we be expected to dumb down movies?” That’s what I always wonder when I hear those complaints about Cohen’s work that generally amount to this: “Not everyone is smart enough to appreciate the subtleties of his humor, so isn’t that a bad thing? Shouldn’t we make sure that no one misinterprets Cohen’s satire?”

Is this really how low we’ve sunk?

Is Cohen’s character in Bruno—ostensibly an Austrian fashion guru and TV personality— an outrageous stereotype of homosexuality as much as a means to send up the idiocies of high fashion? Yes, without question. It’s equally apparent that Bruno is not meant to send up homosexuals, but rather the sort of narrow-minded bigotry that corners a dude into escaping into in-your-face outrageousness in the first place. The fake working title of this movie, after all, was Bruno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt, and that’s a perfect description—though perhaps it would be more fair to say “Homophobic Heterosexual Males.” Possibly, it’s worth asking whether American bigotry, self-centeredness and pettiness is a fair target for a British comedian. But, when the United States is the trendsetter in global pop culture that’s probably a question easily batted away.

Cohen’s daring as a cultural critic is in as grand a form here as it was in Borat, his last brilliant adventure in courting physical assault and civil lawsuits in the name of lampooning American knee-jerk ignorance and superficiality. And it’s not that Americans are the only ones to whom such labels could be applied—just that we’re the biggest target, and have only made ourselves so.

Bruno travels to Los Angeles after having been summarily dismissed from European fashion circles, in search of fame and fortune in the New World, where he finds the natives as shallow and as status-obsessed as he is. If we didn’t already know such places were real, wouldn’t we find the anal-bleaching salon he visits almost too preposterous to believe? Anal? Bleaching? Shudder.

Perhaps the overarching theme of Bruno is that there is apparently nothing so extreme you can tell Americans that they will not believe—such as that a flamboyant gay Austrian looking to expand his celebrity would buy an African child. The unspoken critique: Why do we celebrate Brad and Angelina for importing children if it’s wrong for people whose names we don’t know to do the same? But even more than critiquing the credulity of Americans in a world absurd enough to contain anal-bleaching salons, Bruno asks, “How did we let such a world come to be?”

As Bruno cruises Los Angeles and then expands out into middle America, the questions multiply: Why do we accept a world in which people are dehumanized to the point where no one questions babies being used as status symbols, people being used as furniture, bigotries being used to divide us? Why do we accept a world in which being on camera is so vital that no one—not even those whose reputations could be dinged by being punked by a punk like Cohen—does the slightest bit of research into who is asking for an interview? Why do we accept a world in which doing good—as for a charity—is inevitably turned into good PR?

I don’t want to spoil which deserving targets get the Cohen treatment, but I will say this: He is fearless as a performer, comedian and cultural observer. There’s no boundary or taboo it seems he will not challenge, and at points his audacity gets damned near profound. During a quick sojourn to the Middle East, he laments that he “doesn’t have enough Ecstasy for everyone” to solve the political crises there, and it makes you wonder whether, if he did and everyone could just chill, it might actually work. When so many public figures are deliberately shocking and offensive because they want us to join them in being small, mean, petty and tribal—I’m thinking of the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh—Cohen is doing so for the very opposite reasons. And that is a good thing, and a thing very much worth celebrating.

Oh, and it’s outrageously funny to watch, too.

BRUNO
4_stars.gif
Sacha Baron Cohen
Rated R

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