Movie Review: Bruno
By Matthew Huntley
July 20, 2009

This is...just too disturbing to talk about.

For all the big laughs found in Bruno, there is also an air of comic desperation and awkwardness. I don't think Sacha Baron Cohen had as much confidence in this film as his previous hit, Borat, and it shows. It's probably because the former had the luxury of coming out first, which inevitably made it fresher, bolder and able to break newer ground as far as mockumentaries go. With Bruno, we feel like we're hearing a different version of the same joke, which unfortunately doesn't have the same impact. That's not to say there aren't some original and very funny moments.

In the movie, Cohen embodies his gay alter ego, an Austrian fashionista named Bruno, who is about as festive and extroverted as they come. Just like Borat, Bruno embarks on a journey around America in search of success, complete with his own camera crew. The underlying joke, as you are no doubt aware, is the people whom Bruno meets don't know he's an artificial character. Everything Cohen does as this man is in the interest of comedy and shock, but as he tries to push the envelope, his methods often come across as mean and off-putting, which doesn't always make for the best viewing experience.

After losing his job as a fashion reporter, Bruno sets his eye on Hollywood to become the world's biggest movie star. When he interviews with an agent, I couldn't help but think most Hollywood casting agents are supposed to know what's popular, so I found it hard to believe the agent didn't know Bruno was actually Sacha Baron Cohen, who had his own TV show and co-starred in Talladega Nights. But more on that later.

The movie's comedy stems from Bruno's struggles to make it in the industry by doing everything outrageously wrong. Once again, Cohen wants to generate as many shocks as he does laughs by exposing different peoples' irrational thoughts, fears and insecurities. Given Bruno's orientation and flamboyancy, his primary targets are homophobes, but he also goes after conservatives, terrorist leaders, celebrities, rednecks, the United States army and just about anyone else who crosses his path.

I've no doubt several of the movie's scenes are staged, including the ones with the casting agent. The most obvious is a scene near the end at a swingers' party where a stunt takes place that looks like it was set up from the very beginning. I also question the plausibility of Bruno enlisting in basic training (it's one of the many solutions offered by a gay converter for Bruno to turn straight). Would they really allow a video crew to be in the army? In scenes like these, because I couldn't believe the behavior or reactions of the people around him were genuine, some of the humor got diluted.

Still, there's a lot of humor found in other places. The funniest scene takes place when Bruno visits a spiritualist to contact former Milli Vanilli singer Rob Pilatus. He pantomimes a sexual position that almost had me in tears. It was also amusing to witness a test audience's reaction to Bruno's pathetic attempt at a reality television show, in which he judges whether or not celebrities should get an abortion. The show is awful, yes, but given the audience's reaction, how do so many other reality series still make it on the air? Some of them seem just as awful.

Bruno works because it makes us laugh, but it lacks a certain punch, and that's probably because it's not as shocking as it thinks it is. Even before Borat came along, Hollywood was already on the fast track to becoming more outrageous and liberal with what it decided to show us. Very little seems taboo for mainstream audiences. This year alone delivered such raunch-fests as Miss March, Observe and Report and The Hangover. There are only so many shots of a penis or gay sex scenes one can take before it's not funny, shocking or effective at all any more, and that includes other people's reactions to them. I think we've reached a point in our American culture where we've been so indoctrinated by images meant to violate us that we've grown less uptight and have learned to accept them, or at least I have.

I mentioned the movie was mean and sometimes awkward. These scenes mostly came at the expense of groups still struggling in the world, including African Americans and Middle Easterners. Unlike homophobes or close-minded conservatives, I didn't find it funny to attack them because it seems too easy. These groups are already the butt of so many jokes that to keep doing it seems desperate and cheap.

After Bruno, I think it's wise for Cohen to retire the characters he created from Da Ali G Show, which include Ali G and Borat. At one point in time, they made us laugh uproariously, but before they start to make us turn away, Cohen should quit while he's ahead and move onto something new. He's played these roles very well, but he's also played them long enough.