Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Film review: 'Brüno' exposes dark side of humanity with hilarity

Sacha Baron Cohen as the title character in Brüno.

By John Thomason

Watching the final moments of Brüno unspool, I couldn’t help but think back to the recent spate of domestic terrorism that has sent new and devastating ripples through the culture wars: The assassination of late-term abortion provider George Tiller and the murder of a Holocaust Museum security guard at the hands of a white supremacist.

As Sacha Baron Cohen, dressed up in a costume within a costume, riles up a crowd of Cro-Magnon bigots proclaiming “Straight Pride” in the climax of Brüno, he is baiting the same strain of subhuman that has led to a dramatic rise in right-wing extremism, particularly since the election of Barack Obama. Looking the crowd gathered at the steel-cage fighting match in question is not unlike witnessing a Klan rally.

It may be worse: At least Klansmen have the decency to wear white hoods and bed sheets, telling us who they are. The homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and sheer hate that Cohen uncovers in his art is of a more insidious variety, lurking in the bowels of our churches as much as our swingers clubs.

This adds a shocking undercurrent throughout Cohen’s latest savage indictment of America: Once again roaming the country in the disguise of a foreigner, he exposes the worst in us.

Brüno is every bit as funny, disturbing and revealing as its predecessor Borat, even if it feels even more like a series of television sketches strung together by a very thin thread. That thread? Flaming, rail-thin, buttocks-exposing, mesh-shirt-donning Austrian fashionista Brüno’s efforts to become a celebrity in America. This involves his attempting to land a major film role (he does actually score a part as an extra on Medium), launching a television talk show, making a sex tape, adopting an African baby, fighting for a humanitarian cause and trying to convert to heterosexuality.

A versatile comic genius, Cohen’s humor runs the gamut from the ostentatiously offensive – a barely censored scene of outrageous, prop-filled gay sex that lampoons what so many anti-gay rights conservatives imagine homosexuals doing in their bedrooms – to the uncomfortably disruptive (See the now-famous scene of Brüno showing up at a fashion show in an all-Velcro getup).

While it’s not short on over-the-top slapstick, I much prefer the subtler moments that provoke more gasps than laughs. Interviewing mothers in an attempt to cast babies for a music video of toddlers being crucified and driving Jews into ovens, Brüno asks the moms if they mind their child being surrounded by hornets, wild animals, dangerous machinery and lit phosphorus, and if they’ll be willing to pay for their baby’s liposuction to get the part. Many of these parents will do anything to get their child a role, and it’s more than a little frightening.

Then there’s the most howlingly funny sequence in the film: Brüno’s “interview” with Congressman Ron Paul, which turns out to be a setup for a sex-tape seduction scene in a hotel bedroom. Paul’s face when he realizes that he, like Alan Keyes in Borat, has just been punk’d is priceless.

As Brüno’s journey continues, he travels to darker – if just as funny – recesses of the human psyche, battling a homophobic karate instructor with a panoply of dildos, receiving instructions from a pastor who converts gays to heterosexuality, shattering some straight-male bonding at a hunting excursion in the Bible Belt, and barging into a “God Hates Fags” rally while he and his lover sport sadomasochistic leather in a state of post-coitus.

This stuff isn’t just hilarious; it’s ballsy and confrontational. These are the kind of activities that could get an Austrian fashion queen killed.

Brüno is not a perfect film – the story line’s formula blatantly mimics Borat’s, and some of the movie’s “coincidences” appear dubious, particularly a moment when a Hollywood agent calls Brüno at the exact time the wannabe celebrity is getting his anus bleached.

Putting minor quibbles aside, Cohen is an inimitable firebrand forever treading in shark-filled waters, yet always managing to swim up, flame on and laugh all the way to the bank. He’s an American treasure in a European cloak, holding a mirror to our ills.

Despite jokes involving animatronic penises, remote controls lodged in rectums and all the rest, Brüno is a scarily great movie for our times.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

BRÜNO. Distributor: Universal; Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten and Clifford Banagale; Director: Larry Charles; Writer: Sacha Baron Cohen, Andrew Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

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