Ribbing for your pleasure, Brüno is crafted to cause a flurry of varied reactions, even within a single viewer. Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to Borat puts his gay Austrian fashionista character Brüno in the driver's seat for another assault on cultural sensibilities and sensitivities. Audiences are likely to feel shocked (if only that the MPAA handed the picture an "R" rating—as if to say, "Take that, Kirby Dick!"); a few unprepared viewers may head for the exits before five minutes have elapsed. Some will laugh uproariously on cue at the pressing of each button. Some will be unable to cease a running comparison to the superior Borat, and some will be unable to stop parsing which bits are real and which staged as Brüno goes after homophobes, celebrities, and those looking for table scraps of fame from the ones holding the cameras.
The "fabulous" Brüno, host of Austrian fashion TV show funkyzeit mit Brüno, claims to be nineteen. Though desperate to be "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler" (or at least "the biggest gay superstar since Schwarzenegger"), Brüno spectacularly stumbles while covering a New York runway show. This absurd and brilliantly executed bit sends Brüno on a wide-ranging quest for fame, by hook or by cock. Brüno loses his pygmy-flight-attendant boyfriend Diesel (Clifford Bañagale) and promotes smitten second assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) to first assistant. Having discovered the fashion world is "superficial and vacuous," Brüno naturally turns to Hollywood. There, he pitches to an agent, a TV executive, and a focus group a new show called "A-List Celebrity Max-Out," which features--among other offenses, an athletic talking penis. Brüno will try anything, including adopting an African baby (Jolie style) and co-starring in a celebrity sex tape (by trying to seduce Representative Ron Paul on candid camera).
Like Borat, Brüno previously appeared on Cohen's brilliant Da Ali G Show (the title character also got a movie, 2002's little-seen Ali G Indahouse). On television, Bruno was a bit subtler, and Cohen's marks were unmistakably genuine patsies. For Brüno, Cohen recycles some premises from Da Ali G Show: a visit to a psychic (who here facilitates a reunion with the late Milli of Milli Vanilli), a sit-down with a "gay converter" (here from Alabama), and a lesson from a caught-unawares martial arts instructor obliged to explain how to defend from a penis or three (on TV, this was a Borat routine). On television, the then-unknown Cohen--with the help of HBO--was able to get access to fashion designers and pundits and devastate them by exposing their shallowness and hypocrisy. Now, they can see Brüno coming a mile off, necessitating this film's avoidance of New York City after one big "get."
Brüno's film debut comes front-loaded with staged business, some of it part of the film's overtly fictional frame, but much of it also meant to be accepted as part of Cohen's ambush comedy. In the category of in on the joke, you can definitively put Harrison Ford, who brusquely and profanely rejects Brüno (any face you see on camera would have to have signed a release before or after being filmed); Paula Abdul, who agrees to sit on illegal Mexican dayworkers filling in for missing furniture (Brüno recently made a tit-for-tat guest-star appearance on American Idol); and the NBC Universal television show Medium, notwithstanding all the planted news stories about how Cohen punked the show (not for nothing, Brüno is a Universal release). A sequence at a National Guard training center also smells bad (and plays out pretty much exactly like Stephen Colbert's recent Army-sponsored "basic training"); the Alabama National Guard has complained, but what did they think was going on when they gave this guy with a video crew private training? I know, I know: Austrian journalism--which even if it were "real" would also be...not real.
Though it doesn't ruin the whole film, such fakery certainly sets it off on the wrong foot. The fictional segments should either be limited to Brüno's personal "dramas" or so well executed as to have us believing or at least guessing. I'd bet the episode involving parents agreeing to let their babies do anything for a modeling job was set up ("Just say yes to anything..."), but it's at least plausible and serves an apt satirical point about the desire for getting "in" at any cost. Cohen embarked on Brüno with the understanding that--with his own growing celebrity--the days of his inventive formula were numbered. Indeed, Brüno shows the anticipated strain and diminished returns.
Beyond other considerations, Brüno must be judged for its satiric effectiveness and whether or not it passes the funny test. Even more so than Borat, Brüno is eager to outrage, but the social politics are more diffuse, the satirical line blurred by twin assaults on homophobic America and on polite society. Unlike the TV Brüno, the big-screen Brüno isn't just a happy, effeminate gay man unaware he lives in a prejudiced world. The big-screen Brüno may be blithe, but he's also the obnoxious, flamboyant stereotype of the homophobe's nightmares, and his every move is an unmistakable provocation, whether he's baiting the predominantly African-American audience of Today with Richard Bey by announcing he traded an iPod for his African infant (wearing a T-shirt reading "Gayby") or prancing down the streets of Jerusalem in Hasidic gear dressed down to short shorts (and thus drawing a mob of angry Jews). Oddly, the film's sharpest political stabs come when Brüno attempts to broker peace in the Middle East.
Cohen and director Larry Charles (who also helmed Borat) save up a large-scale conflict between gay America and Arkansas homophobes for the film's climax. Spectacular to be sure, the straight-baiting gay-bashing gets a response as predictable as throwing chum in a shark tank. When the dust settles on Cohen's oeuvre, comedy connossieurs will find themselves returning not to a moment as calculated as this one, but the truly shocking scenes in which Cohen's character lures out prejudices as if by magic, like the vintage Borat segment in which a hunter offers, unprompted, his virulently anti-Semitic views (unware he's talking to a Jewish comedian). Cohen's gifts for verbal and physical performance—and the never-ending shock value—keep his latest movie compulsively watchable for 83 minutes. Brüno has more genuinely funny moments than most contemporary comedies; just be forewarned: the film's success too often depends on its ability to swap in a laugh response for your gasp reflex.
There's no other word for it: Universal's Blu-ray release of Brüno is fabulous. Sure, the film's ambush documentary style means variable video and audio quality, this technically proficient transfer makes the absolute most of the source material, which mostly looks sharp and always is steadily translated into hi-def. The audio is perhaps slightly rougher, but intentionally so in adding to the film's documentary "reality." Perhaps DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is overkill for a film like this, but I'm not going to complain about a treatment that maximizes the material and even offers some surprising directional sound effects.
The Blu-ray comes with an enhanced commentary viewing option that makes this disc absolutely essential for Sacha Baron Cohen enthusiasts. The commentary lives up to its "See how they did it!" billing, with Cohen and director Larry Charles talking through where everything was filmed and testifying to the reality of the footage while conceding one or two staged bits. Reading between the lines can reveal a bit more than the two share, but it's still a fascinating commentary that doesn't skimp on detail: the pair even pause the film to tell lengthier stories about the filming or conception of certain segments.
Also adding value to the disc are two "Alternative Scenes" (5:42, HD), the first being the "sitting on dayworkers" scene, played out with Pete Rose, and the second being Brüno's come-ons to John Bolton, Gary Bauer, and Tom Ridge.
Next come eleven "Deleted Scenes" (40:45, HD), including the much-buzzed-about La Toya Jackson segment; the deleted "Middle East" segment is a Blu-ray exclusive.
Also on hand are eight "Extended Scenes" (22:39, HD); the "National Guard" segment is a Blu-ray exclusive.
Last up is "An Interview with Lloyd Robinson" (5:32, HD), an all-too-short but nevertheless heartwarming chat with Brüno's agent, a real stand-up guy working in the Hollywood trenches.
Of course, Universal offers the My Scenes bookmarking feature and BD-Live accessibility. With well over an hour of cut footage and the invaluable commentary, this disc's a must for Cohen fans.
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