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‘Brüno’ makes you pay for discomfort

POSTED: July 9, 2009 2:41 p.m.
/Universal Pictures

Sacha Baron Cohen portrays the title role character in "Brüno," a gay man who decides he must become straight in order to be a star in the fashion industry.

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What kind of a world do we live in when "Brüno" opens to fanfare and a wide release, yet an instant science fiction classic like "Moon" barely makes it to theaters?

Sacha Baron Cohen is back with a new character and an old strategy. Cohen has created "Borat II:" another fake documentary about an oddball character devised to make people uncomfortable.

Brüno is an utterly airheaded gay fashion model who dreams of becoming the next international star from Austria (he compares himself to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Adolf Hitler, the last Austrian stars).

The trailers give the impression that "Brüno" sends up the fashion industry, but around 15 minutes into the movie, the fashion world aufs Brüno for being a talentless idiot, so he tries other (fruitless) paths to stardom.

He eventually convinces himself that to become a superstar, he must be straight.

The movie then becomes solely about homosexuality as Brüno tries to go straight.

Cohen's schtick at its best approaches performance art. His character subtly pushes buttons and boundaries, and the responses he elicits reveal something about a particular social group.

For instance, Brüno decides at one point to stage an outlandish photo shoot featuring babies. He holds auditions, during which he asks parents whether their babies would do all sorts of outrageous things: "Would you let your baby be one of the criminals crucified with Jesus?" "Would you let your baby play a Nazi prison camp guard?"

Question after question, the parents glibly respond, yes, as long as it helps the kid get the job. Evil wears the face of a stage parent.

But "Brüno" offers far too few moments of such biting satire. Most of the time Cohen wants us to laugh at gay sex and his own bare butt, which we see much too often. The peak, or rather nadir, of these homophobia gags comes during a sequence 30 seconds long consisting of a close-up of a certain part of male anatomy being bounced, twirled and gyrated in every way anatomy will allow.

It's the sort of thing that makes young boys giggle and the rest of us shrug.

Cohen manages to offend both gays and homophobes equally, which is a sort of accomplishment.

On one hand, Brüno is little more than a tired gay stereotype. On the other, Cohen tries to use his flaming gay character to make others uncomfortable. The problem for Cohen is, he has to go way over the top before he provokes his targets.

As part of his attempt to turn straight, Brüno goes on an overnight hunting trip with three camouflage-wearing Alabama hunters.

Cohen's strategy is transparent: Brüno will try to make some rednecks show their hate for gays. But the hunters understand the game Cohen is playing and they say as little as possible. At no point do they act hatefully, and they don't even get angry until Brüno shows up in one hunter's tent stark naked.

Sorry, but it's no shock that any person - male or female, gay or straight - would get angry when a naked man steps into his or her tent.

Cohen doesn't prove anything, and he goes a long way for a cheap laugh.

Thankfully, this time it's Cohen, not America, who looks like a jackass.

Cohen has to stack the deck even more to set up the movie's over-the-top final act.

The ending is outrageous, for sure, but it's also forced and too long.

And "Brüno" was supposed to be longer: producers cut a scene featuring LaToya Jackson at the last minute. Apparently, Brüno played a prank on Jackson and the producers worried the scene would offend some viewers given her brother Michael's recent death.

Sacha Baron Cohen worrying about going too far? Now that is funny.

Cohen can make us laugh, no question, but let's not pretend this is groundbreaking comedy. There's nothing inventive about waving around body parts, and it's a lot to ask audiences to pay for discomfort.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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