Unlike most movies I’ve had the pleasure of viewing this summer, I absorbed Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest opus in a relatively empty theater with family instead of friends. In this sense, the mood may not have been right for me to appreciate the follow up to Cohen’s wildly successful feature length debut, Borat. I was fully aware that the type of shock and awe Brüno was capable of delivering should ideally be experienced with a large, packed theater where the awkward moments in between graphic dildo-based jokes would not seem quite as awkward. Instead, I took in the film with about 20 other people in the middle of the day in an empty theater in an area where the USA hats and t-shirts worn by Brüno’s victims hit closer to home than some other places in America. Consider that my disclaimer.
For me the movie didn’t really pick up until a half hour in, when, after countless mildly humorous back story jokes fell flat (something Borat excelled in), self proclaimed “19 year old” Brüno returned from the Middle East with an African child “swapped” for a red U2 iPod. Up until this point, the blatant offensive nature of most of the jokes are not justified by A) biting social commentary, or B) actually being funny. Note: I know I sound like a stuffy old critic, but the bar for these socially relevant jokes was set very high in Borat. However, once Brüno gets baby O.J. out of the cardboard box and onto the talk show stage, things start to roll. The talk show segment and a few of the ones that immediately follow it are the moments that are most successful at convincing the audience it wasn’t all staged. But once he began interviewing parents of children for his Passion of the Christ– and Nazi-inspired photo shoot, it seemed clear to me that the editors became the uncredited writers of the “story”.
For me the beauty and comic genius of Borat is two fold: the ridiculousness of Borat’s actions mirrored by the equally ridiculous re-actions of his victims. Throughout Borat, there were times when the shocking nature of Cohen’s performance is only trumped by the painfully racist and narrow-minded reactions of the brain-dead American people he was tricking. In Brüno there are only a few moments when this occurs: not nearly enough to justify a feature film. Instead the movie plays out like a long-winded HBO special on the character who originally shocked people on Da Ali G Show; it’s not clear where it’s going and when it gets there I’m not sure if it was funny so much as an exercise in being shocking for the sake of being shocking.
Like many comedies, my fear was that the funniest parts were revealed in the trailer. I guessed/feared correctly. Unfortunately Brüno never really takes off the way that Borat does. Whereas I found myself excited at the premise of Borat stumbling into trouble in middle America with each passing scene, I found myself yawning at the premise of Brüno trying to become a celebrity in Los Angeles. In this way, the movie sells its audience short by offering a fairly cliched story structure. It doesn’t seem to go anywhere and feels more like a sketch comedy show than a feature. This, on top of the excessive use of the male figure to the point of befuddlement, left me wanting a lot more from such a talented and smart writer/actor with a proven track record.