Bruno is absolutely hilarious. It is also absolutely grotesque in its comedy. Sacha Baron Cohen has official inherited the mantle of the “Prince of Puke.” This film will make anyone squirm sitting through it. Luckily, the film also has a point and the grotesque material never becomes gratuitous. Alright, maybe a little. But still, it is also a very intelligent comedy in between its penis jokes. The only other people who managed to do what Cohen has done is, seriously, the Monty Python troupe. To them, everything was a giant game. Too bad that they were stuck in the realm of fiction. Bruno is certainly a worthy sequel to Borat. It is as funny and as insightful as that wandering Kazakh comedy.
Despite this, I had this sense of disconnection with the film. Maybe the problem lies in my second to last sentence of the preceding paragraph: namely, the world sequel. Borat was completely original. No one had ever even tried to attempt what Borat did. With Bruno, someone has already done the exact same thing. As Bruno himself might say “been zthere, ceen et.”
Bruno actually follows the plot of Borat pretty closely. Bruno, a proud gay Austrian (we are never sure which he takes more pride in) is fired from his job as a fashion reporter following a snafu involving a Velcro suit at a fashion show. He goes to L.A. and tries a variety of ways to become “super-famous-the biggest Austrian superstar since Adolf Hitler.” Among his attempts include creating his own TV show, adopting an African baby, attempting to become a star on Medium, creating a sex tape, trying to take up a charitable cause (we’ve already had Da-fur. What’s Da-five?), and even trying to become straight. Along the way, he is joined by his assistant Lutz who is in love with Bruno and tries to win his affections.
What I’ve typed above is as funny in the film as it is on paper. Everything that can go wrong does, and the surrounding people are forced to attempt to hide their true emotions lest the camera catches them. Some of the payoffs are incredible. I would feel almost guilty exposing them here. Needless to say, Bruno attempts to cajole everyone into revealing their homophobia. Some fall right into the trap. Some people attack the camera. Some people chase Bruno down the street. One terrorist leader (yes, really) threatens to kill him. Part of it is Bruno’s treatment of gay people. They exist soley to have sex with other men and wear only the trendiest clothes. Any other views are not accepted. It would have been funny for Bruno to meet actual members of the gay community. But that never happens. What does happen is the average American confronting a package of every single stereotype known to him.
Yet this is all old ground for Sacha Baron Cohen. He addressed homophobia in Borat. And he achieved the exact same result. Also, Cohen doesn’t feel as free as he did with Borat. Borat felt completely spontaneous. Bruno feels far too constricted. It feels far more staged. Is anyone really convinced that Paula Abdul was fooled by the charade? I was not. I firmly believed that sequence was Cohen having fun with a celebrity pal. It still works; the payoff of using Mexican workers as furniture is gloriously tasteless and Abdul has the reaction the audience would expect. But it doesn’t feel real. I can imagine Abdul laughing about the incident after the fact.
Same goes true for most of the typical Americans Bruno meets. It would be downright difficult for them not to know who Cohen is. Borat was everywhere. He was on television, he was in print, he was in the theaters. Wouldn’t anyone have noticed Bruno’s passing resemblance to a certain reporter from Kazakhstan? It just feels forced and never gets to that level of true spontaneity.
But even if it is staged…well then, so what? Everything remains impeccably time. There is never a joke with no payoff. There is never a minute of the film with no joke. There are multiple jokes going on at the same time. It will take multiple viewings to absorb everything that is occurring in the film. And the finale is one of the most memorable moments in cinema, an item that uses the insipid “My Heart Will Go On” to much greater effect than James Cameron. Additionally, the charity single at the end of the film (bringing together Bono, Chris Martin, Slash, Elton John, Snoop Dogg, and Sting) deserves a Best Original Song Nomination, if only because of the sheer amount of talent involved.
But Bruno is still not as good as Borat was. It probably will not have as large of a cultural impact. But that is not nearly as bad as I may have made it sound. Borat remains one of the funniest films ever made. Comedians would give body parts up to be that funny. Even when Cohen tries to reclaim his old glory, his attempts are still going to be better than Kevin James trying to be funny. But the time has come for Cohen to branch out. He cannot keep this shtick up indefinitely.