Friday, August 14, 2009

Downe and Very Out

Above: Bruno, clearly happy that I'm reviewing his film

Three out of four stars

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I walked into the theater to watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest endeavor Bruno. The film starts out innocently enough: the audience gets a quick setup of trendy Austrian fashion reporter Bruno (he repeatedly claims he is 19 years old, but is played by 37 year old Cohen) as well as a sodomy-filled montage with his boyfriend Diesel (Clifford Bañagale), which wisely yet disturbingly sets the tone for the film’s wildly preposterous characters and equally ridiculous segments. As one of the elite names of the Austrian fashion scene, we get to see just a taste of his fame until scandal erupts and he loses everything he values – money, Diesel, and most importantly, fame.

With this temporary setback, Bruno embarks on a quest to become big in Hollywood with his faithful and somewhat smitten assistant’s assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten). We see many attempts of Bruno being earnestly resourceful and creative but committing one faux pas after another. From acting to talk show hosting to adopting a modern accessory, his lack of scale and comprehension constantly get him into trouble when he interviews real people, and his leaps of logic repeatedly get him into situations that would be dangerous only for a person like Bruno.

Remarkably, for all of Bruno’s personal failings, there is no shortage of Hollywood cameos. With the amount of pain and effort Bruno puts into his ill-conceived plans, it would be heartbreaking to see him not encounter these names. Though things never go according to plan, the cameos bring about an air of legitimacy to his quest and help endear Bruno to the audience.

The film is 82 minutes long, but there are definitely no boring spots. There are a few segments that are downright painful to watch, but much of the film’s humor derives from Bruno’s fake antics and his victims’ very-real reactions, in classic Borat-style, for a dynamic one-two punch. Sacha Baron Cohen does an admirable job of adlibbing in order to elicit certain responses from those on screen, and something must be said of just how gutsy a performer he is. Cohen as Bruno is met with hostility and Cohen gives you something of a dual surprise: how at times he manages to stand his ground for the sake of the joke and, in other times, just how quickly he can run for dear life. Apparently, Cohen employs a relentless philosophy in which it is better for the film to keep the audience’s attention at all times, no matter the cost. No one watching this film will catch their breath.

Cohen’s previous film Borat was about exposing America’s latent xenophobia and anti-immigration attitudes, and Bruno seeks to question America’s homophobia in the same style. Had the story in Bruno been stronger, I would have considered it a detriment as it follows roughly the same formula as Borat, right down to the conflict with the loyal sidekick. However, since there is not much of a story and the true charm of the film comes from the segments themselves, I am willing to let the similarities slide. Rather, while Bruno admirably seeks to push the envelope in order to further explore the homophobic attitudes and/or self-absorbed naiveté of America’s citizens, some segments accomplish this goal while others seem to do nothing else but to provoke whatever victim had the misfortune of running into Cohen. Bruno’s agent, for example, doesn’t come across as malicious or anti-Gay, but just as an object for Cohen to antagonize. Compare that interaction with the gay conversion preachers, who would be the ideal target for the subject matter, and the film comes across as uneven in that regard.

Despite the lack of consistency, the jokes and gags flow from within the context of the segments because the punch lines come from the victims themselves, with Cohen only providing the push. The old adage of “You can’t make this stuff up” certainly rings true, and these displays of honesty cut through plenty of false sincerity that only actors could give. While seeking the truth is always a hazard in some way, Bruno just barely gets away by the skin of his teeth. If there’s one thing everybody loves in a film, it’s a harrowing escape.

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