So there he was, getting whipped by the dominatrix at that redneck swingers party, and suddenly the whole cultural moment was weighing on me, as if this were some perverse sort of movie-comedy apotheosis. The film, like that dominatrix’s breasts, is unmistakably unreal but ominously inflated. It’s unsettling to think that the inflation itself has become our new reality baseline. And it’s hard to know or even care anymore about what parts have been staged and who’s in on it and how much is true. But it’s not hard—and therefore rather unpleasantly satisfying—to see that when Brüno’s getting whipped, that much is real.
Wild horses couldn’t drag us away from Sacha Baron Cohen, who explores (or lewdly gropes) the fashion zeitgeist in Brüno.
And he’s so willing take a beating, it makes you wonder if he actually wants to get hurt. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everybody has a kink. But you have to own it. It seems like the chief concern of Brüno—in which Sacha Baron Cohen’s faux-flaming, fame-craving Austrian fashion correspondent from “Da Ali G Show” comes to America and to feature length—is to push, hard, until somebody pushes back. Lewd innuendo intended.
When he’s not getting whipped, he’s hunching naked in the night and nudging at the tent flap of a rifle-toting hunter; or prancing in short shorts through some Middle Eastern city where orthodox Jews will chase him through the streets; or making out with his doting personal assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) in a cage surrounded by a drunken, gay-hating mob. Really asking for it, in other words. It’s like “Punk’d” multiplied by “Jackass,” although hell if I know what that equals.
Director Larry Charles, also of Borat, and then of Religulous, has specialized in situational comedy built not from jokes but from incendiary stunts. It is predicated on the merciless exposure of human shortcomings in an age of obliterated privacy, pandemic vanity, and desiccated dignity. For this, Cohen seems like the perfect muse.
Like Borat before him, Brüno is a satirizing buffoon. He doesn’t merely push boundaries; he gallops headlong across them. Or sashays. Or pedals his dildo-adorned exercise bike. His goal is simply to become famous. So no, he’s not just giving small-minded homophobes the finger. He’s giving them the dancing, talking penis. And some gay people surely will consider him the embodiment of homophobia.
Satire should aim precisely and scour accordingly, but Brüno often feels unfocused and unclean. It’s like the comedy equivalent of an enhanced interrogation technique. Sure, it’ll rip the lid off a seething pit of prejudice and narcissism and stupidity, but what if it also causes those things, or really is made of them? There are scenes in which the humor goes so low as to have negative value. Which scenes these are will vary according to audience threshold.
This cultural moment feels like stinging tedium, like being whipped. But at least some people can get off on it.