There are movies that make you laugh, and movies that make you cry in hysterics because what you're watching is so disturbing and foul you can't believe it. These movies take you off guard and hit you in the funny bone just right, offering a new experience based on surprise, shock and amazement. That film was called Borat. A couple years later, we get its de facto sequel Bruno, and you realize everything good about its predecessor has shriveled up and died.
I watched Borat for the second time a month ago, and that should have been an indication. The comedy-documentary was still entertaining, but not nearly as much as I remembered. You knew what was coming and all shock value was gone. The funniest scenes had lost some of their edge, including the naked fight sequence, which was easily the most "I can't believe they did that" moment of Borat.
Still, going into Bruno, I expected that we'd get more outrageous scenes set against a backdrop of real and suspecting people. The movie is about a gay Austrian fashion critic who, after destroying his career in Europe, decides to head to the United States to resurrect himself. Presumably, he would travel around the country flaunting his homosexuality and evoke all kinds of bigoted behavior from unsuspecting people.
Unfortunately, Bruno tries to go bigger and better with this sequel; what results is a complete and utter failure. Bruno is so bad that my friend and I nearly walked out; if it weren't for morbid curiosity to see how bad things could get and the fact the movie is only 80-some minutes long, we would have. I wish we had, because Bruno was a complete waste of time. At least my friend bought the ticket.
There are three key problems with Bruno:
1) So much more of the movie is staged and scripted - or at least obviously staged and scripted - than in Borat. The first act seems almost entirely devoted to story, which is truly unnecessary. It is here where we're greeted to Bruno's sex games with his pygmy boyfriend, his failed attempts to regain his stature, blah blah blah. Much of the second act has a lot of scripted moments as well, as if Sacha Baron Cohen forgot what made Borat so funny. These scenes are so stupid, so pointless, so not funny that by the time you get to any of the good stuff, your brain is fried.
2) The good stuff isn't that good. Watching Bruno undress in front of Presidential candidate Ron Paul is amusing, but not that funny. While Paul's flustered reaction and use of the word "queer" shows uneasiness with gay people, it's not like Cohen was just flirting with him; he quickly turns an awkward situation into a legitimately uncomfortable one. Can you really fault Paul that much? Bruno meets with a pastor who has committed his life to turning gay people straight; amusing, but Bill Maher got a much better reaction out of a similar guy in his film Religulous (also directed by Borat/Bruno director Larry Charles). The bottom line: most of the "real" footage seems like dull afterthoughts that wouldn't have even made the cut in Borat.
3) When there is good stuff, we've already seen it in the previews or at least heard about it in the news. Yes, Paula Abdul seats herself on a chubby Mexican guy who looks like Saddam Hussein. Yes, Cohen takes himself on a camping trip with several Alabama hunters and starts comparing them to the Sex and the City girls ("That is such a Samantha thing to say!"). Yes, he goes on an African-American Christianity talk show to explain how he swapped an iPod for an African baby named O.J. These are funny bits, but we all saw them in the previews. Almost all of the great punch lines in the movie have already been revealed, and so most of the shock value is gone. That's where Borat succeeded and Bruno fails miserably.
Examining these elements together, we see some underlying issues that caused Bruno to be such a disaster. Much of it takes place in Los Angeles apparently, not exactly the homophobic center of the world. It also feels as though Cohen struggled mightily to get enough footage to put the movie together; after Borat, he may be a little too well known to pull off such crazy antics. And lastly, with Bruno, he has shifted the joke from his victims on film to those sitting in the theater stands; though some shock value came at our expense with Borat, the most defendable laughs came when he was making a mockery of real people on screen. In Bruno, Cohen seems desperate to evoke some kind of reaction, so he has filled his film with intentionally shocking moments just for the audience, like the aforementioned sex games with his boyfriend or multiple shots of his penis swinging around like a tennis ball in a sock. These scenes are made for us, but what's the point? Cohen's audiences are the liberal left, the ones who don't care as much about gays and race and stuff like that. We paid to see him make fun of everyone else and expose their deep-rooted bigotries, and not to just see a bunch of cock and balls and uninteresting jokes.
Bruno is shocking, but only in how terrible it is. The movie does pick up in the final act as Cohen dives more into drawing reactions from real people, but you'll have to struggle through nearly an hour of unnecessary setup and flat jokes. Avoid this one at all costs.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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