Universal // 2009 // 82 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 17th, 2009
Borat was so 2006.
"How do you protect yourself from a dildo?"
Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) is a gay Austrian television fashion show host who desperately craves fame. In order to achieve international stardom, he determines to travel to Los Angeles and...well, he'll figure it out as he goes along. Whether it's doing celebrity interviews, trying to make a sex tape with Ron Paul, adopting an African child, or hosting a pro wrestling match, Bruno will do what it takes to ensure that everyone knows his name.
The first hour of Sacha Baron Cohen's much-acclaimed Borat was smart, edgy satire, but I felt that the last half-hour devolved into little more than cheap shock value. If you were one of those who felt that the naked wrestling scene was far and away the comic high point of Borat, then I suspect Bruno will be right up your alley. If, like me, you found Borat most compelling when it was using the character for savvier cultural commentary, then you may find Bruno rather exasperating. Despite fleeting moments of insight and a handful of genuine laughs, Bruno is primarily interested in demonstrating how far Sacha Baron Cohen is willing to go in order to get a giggle.
Bruno poses as a movie that is attempting to expose the bigotry and homophobia of Americans (particularly those that live in the Deep South), but I actually feel that the film is a bit homophobic itself. In addition to being a genuinely horrible human being (he's racist, self-absorbed, rude, and willing to do absolutely anything to achieve fame), Bruno is a standard-issue gay stereotype dialed up to 11. Unfortunately, he's more or less the only representative of the gay community in the film (aside from his dim-witted, little-seen sidekick and his wildly experimental lover). Bruno is a film that can be seen and enjoyed by many people with homophobic tendencies, because it offers up a definition of "gay" that fits within very stereotyped parameters. Heck, it might even make some of these folks feel good about themselves. After all, they're not as shamelessly homophobic as those pro wrestling fans in Alabama, right?
A.O. Scott of The New York Times offered a spot-on observation in his review of the film: "An early sequence that graphically shows Bruno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher, and a specifically modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently gross, weird, and comical." Exactly. Beneath all of the supposed social commentary and "shocking" steps out of bounds, there is the overwhelming sense that Bruno is still running on those tired old "Tee-hee, two men are kissing each other!" fumes. In the world of Bruno, you're either a boring old straight person or a wild, sex-crazed queen. I'm sure that Cohen and director Larry Charles don't actually view the world this way, but their film is exasperatingly small-minded. Even Elton John is forced to sing about anal bleaching.
But let's put aside the issues of political correctness and whether or not the film is itself homophobic. On a more basic level, Bruno just doesn't really work as a comedy. Cohen relies way too heavily on displaying his own body in provocative ways for comic effect. Cheers to him for being so fearless, but it gets old very quickly. The yellow swimsuit in Borat was amusing because it was unexpected. In Bruno, the shock of seeing Cohen in some sort of very revealing costume (or no costume at all, for that matter) wears off very quickly. Nonetheless, the actor continues to believe that we'll be amused by the constant nudity/near-nudity, so he continues to strut his stuff at every possible turn. The moment when a naked Cohen attempts to sneak into a hunter's tent in the middle of the night should be funnier than it is, but it doesn't work for two reasons. First, Cohen has been naked so frequently at that point that we're no longer surprised, and second, it's hard to be too condemning of the hunter for getting so irritable about a naked man attempting to crawl into his tent in the middle of the night.
Speaking of Bruno's interactions with people in the real world, another problem with the film is that it picks easy targets. Sure, bigoted wrestling fans, members of the Westboro Baptist Church (the "God Hates Fags" people), and audience members at Jerry Springer-style reality programs may be deserving of ridicule, but they're such easy targets. Cohen isn't exposing embarrassingly awful behavior, he's simply inserting himself into the sort of nonsense that can be seen on television every day and smugly saying, "Look at these idiots!" There are also moments that seem to backfire slightly on Cohen, as his efforts to draw out someone's bigotry get a bit desperate. Is the manner in which Cohen treats Ron Paul really justified just because Paul calls Cohen "queer" later on? I'm not sure. Likewise, Cohen's conversation with a pastor who has dedicated his life to "curing" gays doesn't quite work. Are such methods deserving of satire? Certainly, but the pastor maintains his composure and treats Bruno with kindness and respect even when our protagonist tells the pastor he has "great blowjob lips."
Finally, there's the overwhelming sense of deja vu. Cohen attempts to re-capture lightning in a bottle by mimicking Borat in many ways. The plot is almost a beat-for-beat copy (foreigner comes to America on a mission with submissive sidekick tagging along), and many of the comedic bits seem to be attempting to create "improvised" moments very similar to the famous scenes from Borat (just try to convince me that the pro wrestling conclusion isn't a blatant attempt to match the wrestling scene from Cohen's previous film).
It's a bit challenging to give a grade to the picture quality, since a large portion of the film is presented via subpar "captured" video footage that looks very much like rough documentary material. It's all part of the artistic effect (and partially due to the fact that some of this stuff was filmed via hidden cameras), but it doesn't look amazing in hi-def. That said, the scenes that were shot in a more polished manner look very strong and detailed. The audio has similar issues, as much of it is the sort of slightly muffled material you expect to accompany rough-looking footage. The soundtrack numbers (which veer from witty to insufferable) certainly come through with clarity and strength, particularly the "music video" number that plays over the end credits.
The best supplement is a video commentary with Cohen and Charles, which is arguably even more compelling than the film itself. The pair shares a wide variety of colorful stories regarding the film's making, and shed at least some light on what is real and what is staged. Aside from that, you get a whopping 40 minutes of deleted scenes (including that Michael Jackson-reference that was hastily cut from the film after Jackson's death), over 20 minutes of extended scenes, and 5 minutes of alternate scenes. You also get a brief 5-minute interview with talent agent Lloyd Robinson, who plays a key part during one stretch of the film. Finally, you get a digital copy of the film, and the disc is equipped with BD-Live. Oh, and the disc menus are presented in German, for whatever that's worth.
There are moments littered throughout the film that undeniably hit the mark, offering an indication of what Bruno could have been if Cohen's ambitions were a bit more...um, ambitious. The scene in which the character consults a "Charity PR Firm" to figure out which charities are most fashionable at the moment speaks volumes about what an empty facade many celebrity social causes are. There's also a truly scathing sequence in which Bruno interviews a series of mothers who want their babies to participate in a fashion photo shoot. Bruno asks the mothers whether they'll be comfortable with things that no mother should be comfortable with, and every mother eagerly says yes. These women are so desperate for their children to achieve fame that they throw sanity and reason out the window. Not only do they agree to everything Bruno demands of them, they do so without blinking or hesitating for a moment. After all, any signs of doubt might lose them the job.
I'm certain that some of you will simply think me a closed-minded square for disliking this film as much as I do, but it's honestly not the extremity of the content that bothers me. It's the thoughtless irresponsibility of the comedy, which I believe has the potential to do far more damage than good. The smart and perceptive moments in this film aren't enough to compensate for the ugly stereotypes and general mean-spiritedness.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Video Commentary
* Alternate/Deleted/Extended Scenes
* Digital Copy