Release Date: November 17, 2009
Own it on Blu-ray and DVD
Director: Larry Charles
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer, Peter Baynham
Stars: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Bañagale, Lloyd Robinson
MPAA Rating: R
“People feel much more hate towards Brüno. It’s not that Brüno’s a mean character – people are meaner to Brüno and it shows a darker side of the American psyche.”
– Larry Charles, Brüno audio commentary
As much as I wish the above statement was true, I must respectfully disagree with director Larry Charles.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Brüno is an unlikeable character. While Borat had an “aww shucks” charm that made his baiting of people in the film seem like a harmless cultural misunderstanding, Brüno seems willfully cruel, as if he enjoys antagonizing people. And in that first two-thirds of the film, the people in his path actually act rather calm and reasonably.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Brüno, like Borat, is a character Sasha Baron Cohen created as part of Da Ali G Show. Brüno is an over-the-top Austrian fashionista seeking fame and fortune. The film is a collection of improvised scenes with unsuspecting folks who believe that the character is a real person. As Charles mentions in the commentary, the goal is to get a window into these people’s psyche and to hopefully expose the intolerance directed at homosexuals (all while getting big laughs, of course). Unfortunately, more often than not, in the first two-thirds of the film, Cohen and Charles fail to deliver.
The reason that Borat succeeded was because you sympathized with the character and the whole time felt like you were in on the joke. Cohen subtly tweaked the people appearing in that film, getting them to reveal their biases in a very natural way. In Brüno, the set ups feel more forced and, more often than not, I found myself sympathizing with the people being duped, who mostly acted quite reasonably given the circumstances.
When Brüno hits on Ron Paul in hopes of tricking him into making a sex tape, the political candidate politely ignores his advances, passing the time quietly glancing at a newspaper in the corner of the room. It isn’t until Brüno drops his pants in front of him that Paul has enough and walks out of the room. Even Ayman Abu Aita, of the terrorist group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, is actually incredibly civil to Brüno until he begins openly mocking Osama bin Laden. In both cases, the interviewee is visibly annoyed, but simply declares the interview to be over without ever shouting or getting in Brüno’s face. There is also a scene where Brüno pantomimes fellatio for several minutes and the person in the room, instead of getting angry or antagonistic, simply looks bored (a reaction I shared while watching the scene).
There is also a bit early in the film where Brüno shows the pilot for his new show to a focus group. The show is an annoying mix of quick cuts and in-your-face crotch shots that culminates in an extended shot of Cohen’s penis twirling around the screen. The focus group calls Brüno a “talentless idiot” and dub the show the “worst piece of crap I have ever seen,” but after watching the show myself, I was inclined to agree with them. Clearly, that’s not the reaction that Cohen and Charles are hoping for.
There are a few instances where Cohen does manage to expose the darker side of the human psyche in the opening two-thirds of the film, but none of it has anything to do with homophobia. There is a particularly disturbing scene where Brüno is negotiating with stage moms to have their children appear in an ad with his adopted son O.J. and he tells them that their babies need to lose weight or that he wants them to appear on crucifixes reenacting the death of Jesus, and they all agree to his outlandish demands without even raising an eyebrow.
There is also a scene early in the film where Brüno deals with an unfurnished house by hiring “Mexican chair people” and he convinces Paula Abdul to sit on the back of one of these men while talking about how important humanitarian work is to her. It isn’t until another Mexican is wheeled out, naked and covered in sushi, that Abdul’s publicist pulls the plug on the whole thing. (In deleted scenes, Brüno also convinces Pete Rose and LaToya Jackson to sit on these chair people. Jackson even takes a piece of food off the naked man. In the commentary, Cohen reveals that the idea is based on Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority, a psychological experiment used to test the limits of human compliance.)
It isn’t until the final third of the film that the movie picks up speed and Cohen and Charles begin to accomplish what they sought to do with this film. In the final chunk of the movie, Brüno decides that the true ticket to fame and fortune is to rebuke his gay lifestyle and to become a heterosexual. It’s in this part of the film that Cohen’s performance becomes much more subdued and enjoyable and he is able to elicit the responses he wants from people in a much more natural and funny way.
Brüno spends the majority of this part of the film in the South, which is ripe for the kind of intolerance he is hoping to mine for comedy gold. He finds two different priests looking to convert him to a heterosexual, one priest clearly loathes women and the other is a great source of unintentional comedy offering advice like ‘avoid playing the clarinet if it reminds you of your homosexual tendencies’ and that ‘lifting weights with other men is a great straight activity to do’. There is also a clueless karate instructor who teaches Brüno how to defend himself against homosexuals by letting Cohen attack him with dildos. Then there are the three redneck hunters who share a hilariously long uncomfortable silence with Brüno as he begins to talk about hot guys while sitting around the campfire.
I haven’t even mentioned Brüno’s visit to a swinger’s party or his trip to a military base, both of which show slivers of the comedic greatness that Cohen was able to accomplish in Borat.
The movie’s climax comes during a mixed martial arts event in Arkansas, where Brüno has officially reinvented himself as Straight Dave. It’s during this scene that we actually see the cruelty and dark glimpse into the American psyche that Charles alludes to in the commentary. Straight Dave is an amusing over-the-top macho guy stereotype and the crowd, which is full of bloodlust and the hopes of seeing two men battle it out, turns into a borderline angry mob when it turns out that Straight Dave isn’t so straight. Their tolerance for violence and intolerance of homosexuality becomes an interesting juxtaposition. The scene is great and it shows you what the film could have been if the rest of the movie had found a way to capture its tone and energy.
Unfortunately, the movie ultimately fails to deliver on Charles’ promise as more often than not, the laughs and the social commentary fall flat.
However, one of the bright spots of the film is Lloyd Robinson, a talent agent who believed that Brüno was a real Austrian television star and was hoping to help him find crossover success in America. There is something loveable and genuine about Robinson and in the commentary, Cohen even goes so far as to claim the agent is a father figure for Brüno in the movie. During an interview included in the bonus content, Robinson reveals that when he first saw a giant billboard advertising the film Brüno, he initially believed that Brüno had finally caught a big break and it wasn’t until later that he figured out he was duped.
Another bright spot of the DVD release itself is the audio commentary. Cohen and Charles really pull back the curtain and reveal how they pulled off the different stunts and tricks in the film. It’s nice to hear them being so candid and honest about how the film was made and it makes you appreciate their belief in the importance of the film’s message. Unfortunately, it makes it even more disappointing that the message falls so flat.
I wanted to like this film more than I did, but in the end I felt disappointed. The final third showed what the film could be and the commentary is an interesting glimpse inside Cohen’s head, but in the end, I simply cannot in good conscience recommend picking up this film.
Written by Joel Murphy. Brüno is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.