Listening to the Slate Culture Gabfest in the past week, a comment was made that seems to epitomise how I feel about the filmic work of Sasha Baron Cohen. To paraphrase horribly, Sasha Baron Cohen is a genius at something, it just might not be movies.
Borat was a cultural and commercial phenomenon, beloved of critics and the public alike. I was never quite so sure. The film has a number of terrific moments, some cutting satire and some balls-out (pun-intended) physical comedy. My estimate was though that it relied a little too heavily on the slight, and I note slight, xenophobic tendencies involved in the accent of the character and never really said much which we didn’t already know.
Bruno is the same story, for all intents and purposes, with its lead character, a flamboyantly gay fashionista and presenter of a fashion show in his native Austria, moving to Hollywood to become a celebrity. When he gets there, he tries a number of different methods to make it, including supporting charities, adopting an African baby, making a TV show for CBS (which includes a dancing penis) and going straight.
Bruno is the step onwards from Borat in terms of the problems which I had with that original film. There is no doubting that the humour involved in the film is very, very funny. There are some moments in this film which you will, absolutely definitely, not have seen and may never see again. It is outrageous in ways so many could never have envisioned and provides belly laughs on a number of occasions.
Unlike Borat’s best moments though, this is very short on moments where the humour is designed to reveal something about its targets. Only two moments manage to restrain themselves in just providing the rope for the subjects rather than scrambling frantically to hang them up. The scene with the two blonde charity consultants may well give a bad name to the most fun of hair colours, but it captures the kind of base-level idiocy which can be possessed while people still run well-heeled, entrepreneurial ventures in Hollywood. The other great moment in this regard is his questioning of pushy parents for a photo shoot involving their children in which he gets them to agree to their children dressing as Nazis and working with bees.
Those moments, when Bruno returns to his roots in Da Ali G Show, are insightful and clever. He allows his subjects to hang themselves with their own faults and those comic moments have resonance.
It isn’t that everything else is worthless, but the primary problem is that Bruno doesn’t position himself as the enabler but rather the antagonist. He has to push people and boundaries as far as possible and, unfortunately, fails to make any salient points about homophobia. Spending half a film attempting to explain that homophobia exists in the culture of the deep south in the US? Hardly groundbreaking.
The question over how homosexuality is played in the film seems to be moot. Bruno is not gay. This character is not a gay human being, he’s not really even human. He’s so outrageously ridiculous that I cannot envisage a way in which someone could be offended by the character on that level. The argument being made is that he perpetuates gay stereotypes. I would argue he inverts them somewhat through how far he takes them. He plays on the flouncy character known best for its prominence in sitcoms of days passed, but there is almost no way that those stereotypes, even up to Jack in Will & Grace, would talk about or engage in the kind of physically dynamic sex scenes that Bruno engages in. This is gay beyond filmic gay and is one of the more successful parts of the film.
The basic fact is though, to return to that original paraphrase, Baron Cohen is not great over the course of a film. Da Ali G Show, a work of complete genius at its best, provides all three of his character with great, sparing moments. The film represent the epitome of having too much of a good thing which, when you’ve had too much, becomes bad.