Posted on 10 July 2009.
In the beginning, there were three. Three characters created and played by Sacha Baron Cohen in his HBO series “Da Ali G Show.” Ali G was the hip-hop wannabe, who interviewed politicians and bigwigs, asking such bizarre questions, a 9-year-old would know better. Borat was the mustachioed foreigner from Kazakhstan, making a documentary about conforming to American customs. Finally, Bruno was the gay Austrian fashionista sent to lampoon the industry he was a part of. All three were created to expose a part of America and exploit it for laughs. Ali G was given the first attempt at having his own feature film (Ali G Indahouse) and it failed in large part due to its scripted nature, no longer distinguishing itself from any other 90-minute comedy. Baron Cohen went back to the drawing board for 2006′s Borat and ultimately expanded his character’s skits into full-length hilarity. That only left one character and one movie to go. Finally, it’s Bruno’s time to shine.
Bruno depicts very much the same title character from the TV show. Always at the height of new fashion and influence, Bruno is the host of the Austrian television show “Funkyzeit mit Bruno.” The show allows him to cast judgment over current topics, labeling them as simply either in or “aus.” For a segment meant for his TV show, Bruno is sent to cover a fashion show in Milan and decides to be as hip as any of the models by showing up wearing a suit made entirely out of Velcro. He impedes on the show, taking pieces of clothes with him everywhere. His disaster gets him blacklisted from Austria’s fashion circle and he is left on the outside looking in.
No longer being able to continue his life’s work in his native country, Bruno is dumped by his boyfriend (emphasis on the first part of the word), Diesel, and decides to head to America to find fame once again. He’s supported by his former assistant’s assistant, Lutz, and together they go about making Bruno’s dreams come true.
But how does one go about gaining fame? Bruno tries his hand at acting, hosting another interview show, getting the hottest new fashion accessory, starting a charity and finally attempts to become straight. He has willing aids throughout his search, all doing their best to give Bruno what he wants and begs for. Fame is certainly a tough nut to crack, but by the end there might be no more famous a name than Bruno.
We could only be so lucky if there were three Bruno's.
I can’t recall who the interview was with, but I once read a piece about an actor/actress who bristled when their performances were deemed “daring” or “risk-taking,” because they noted what risk do they really take? They’re right. Kate Winslet’s choice to play a sexualized Nazi guard in last year’s The Reader was seen as both daring and risk-taking, lest her very well-regarded image as an actress be destroyed. The same was said about Sean Penn’s performance as openly-gay politician Harvey Milk in the biopic Milk. Of course playing a gay character is seen as the death knell for typecasting. However, both won Oscars for their respective performances because Hollywood saw them as daring and risk-taking when they didn’t really risk a damn thing.
Those two descriptive phrases should never be uttered when referencing an actor again, unless that actor is Sacha Baron Cohen. Not only does he play the flamboyant gay Bruno (again, the death knell), but he actually risks something…his physical safety. The Bruno character thrives in real situations so as to exploit issues of attention-craving, consumerism and homophobia. Baron Cohen stages each gag to garner the greatest possible amount of exposure and realism from his non-actor targets. With each new set-up, the audience can only imagine what horrors lie aheadm, like when Bruno brings his adopted black child, O.J., to room full of Dallas-area African-Americans. Good luck. Because the majority of the situations are real and unscripted, you are always acutely aware of the actor behind Bruno, even though there are absolutely no breaks in character. Baron Cohen is as method as Daniel Day-Lewis and it’s high time the Academy recognizes truly “daring” work.
Like Borat before it, Bruno mixes a high-contrast blend of both high- and low-brow humor. There aren’t any naked wrestling scenes in this one, but there is plenty of penile-related laughter to be had. Bruno is a hyper-sexualized gay man, after all. But just as there are sight gags and instances of gross-out humor, there are as many jokes that work as commentary on American culture and prejudices. The film has enough intelligence to it where it becomes obvious there’s a work of genius behind the madness. At a brisk 82 minutes, I feared it would seem to short and I’d be left satiating for more, but alas 82 minutes of wall-to-wall hilarity is more than any other film can possibly offer.
An oft-spoken rule-of-thumb is if you can’t laugh at yourself, you shouldn’t laugh at anybody else. Bruno holds up the mirror to our faces so we can have the opportunity to do so. The character’s journey embodies our tabloid reading, celeb-obsessed culture and displays the desperation found in the search for fame. Of course it wouldn’t nearly make the impactful statement it does without being outrageously funny, which it is in spades. Like Milk and The Reader, tears may be cried, but like Borat before it, they’ll be tears streamed from non-stop hilarity. Bruno grants the last Baron Cohen character the film he deserves, which scares one into wondering, “What does he do next?”