Directed by Larry Charles
It’s hard to root against Sacha Baron Cohen. In the summer of The Hangover, a mildly funny film undercut by some unseemly homophobia and an over-reliance on comfy frat-boy humor, he’s got the gall to unleash not only the season’s most outlandish comedy, but most likely the most audacious film to see studio rollout this year (a title previously worn by Jody Hill’s very dark Observe and Report). Those expecting Borat-level shocks should be advised that Cohen steps up his game here and delivers some remarkably aggressive material that may not play well among mainstream cinemagoers.
Five minutes in, and it begins to look like that’s Cohen’s exact intention; within that timespan we get a censored (but still jaw-dropping) montage of graphic gay sex acts between out titular Austrian TV star and his diminuitive boyfriend. (For anyone who was left wanting for more big-screen gay action after the relatively chaste likes of Milk and Brokeback Mountain, here’s your tonic.) Is the sequence funny? Not precisely, but it is as close to transgressive material as we’re going to see in multiplexes this year. Actually, scratch that, that appellation most likely belongs to any of the half-dozen sequences that end up topping it. Take your pick: baby endangerment humor, the mother of all mimed sex acts, a particularly nasty abortion gag, anal bleaching, race-baiting – it’s all here. When a sequence falls flat (as it occasionally does) we roll onto the next without much fuss.
It must be noted that Brüno, as filmmaking, is patchy, likely as a necessity of Cohen’s newfound fame. It’s considerably harder for him to get the jump on people like he used to. As a result, Cohen and director Larry Charles are forced to rely upon more stagy scenarios – a talk show, a test screening, etc. – to give his stunts the room they require. He does manage to pull off some more intimate work – I’m especially fond of his conversation with an Alabama “queer-curing” Jesus type – but it’s of a less spontaneous nature than much of the material that made up Borat. It feels very much like the film was edited around Cohen’s successes. with an extremely haphazard narrative (involving Brüno’s ongoing affairs with his “plain Jane” assistant, Lutz) designed to vaguely push on to the next incident. Despite Cohen’s frankly heroic reserves of comic verve, the cracks do show.
And yet, and yet…I find myself always returning to Cohen’s, well, balls. There are a number of sequences that arouse a palpable sense of danger, especially a climactic scene involving a wrestling rally and an angry mob (hopped up on free beer and macho-man rhetoric). Whatever the film lacks in formal coherence, whatever its occasionally sloppy construction, I’m tempted to give it all a pass in the face of Cohen’s audacity in presenting a barrage of imagery and content that runs against cultural norms. You may not like his delivery method, but Brüno – who, for all of his over-the-top mannerisms, is nothing if not entirely self-possessed – argues against lightly tiptoeing around the “issues.” We see displays of hatred and loathing that can’t be mistaken for anything else – images that conflict strongly with the supposed enlightenment brought on by the Obama Age. Hate him or love him, Cohen intends to test the limits of our hallowed culture of “tolerance.” If it takes a spinning, talking penis to get the job done, so be it.