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Review: Brüno

Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno restores bad taste to its rightful place
By A.S. HAMRAH  |  July 8, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars


Brüno | Directed by Larry Charles | Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer, and Peter Baynham | with Sacha Baron Cohen, Paula Abdul, La Toya Jackson, Harrison Ford, Ron Paul, Bono, Chris Martin, Elton John, Slash, Snoop Dogg, and Sting | Universal Pictures | 87 minutes
Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno restores bad taste to its rightful place in a world impervious to outrage. Or maybe it exposes the fake outrage of a world that ignores the things by which it should be outraged. Directed by Larry Charles, the film moves so quickly from one shocker to another in its swift 87 minutes that it's hard to know for sure. Brüno is wall-to-wall jokes, but it never loses sight of its targets, which are many and in the end all-encompassing. Like any good satire, it's as hideous and terrifying as the world it describes. That's not such a big claim for a film with both a talking urethra and an interview with a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

In Palestine, they train children to be suicide bombers; in Hollywood, they train them to be actors. One testament to Baron Cohen's particular genius is the way Brüno deftly and almost comfortably equates the two. The guy from the Martyrs' Brigades, who at least has the good sense to kick Brüno out, seems more rational, or maybe just more intelligent, than the desperate parents Brüno interviews when looking for a baby for a photo shoot. The film equates these two kinds of insanity, revealing the American one as equally disgusting and only slightly less deadly.

Brüno, the flamboyantly gay Austrian TV-show host Baron Cohen portrays with such committed pride in his ability to transform himself, frequently lapses into mentions of Hitler. There's a sense in which the film indicts all post–World War II history by describing Western civilization's movement from Nazism to brain-dead Hollywood celebrity. It's not for nothing Brüno starts in Austria and ends up in LA.

It all begins in a staged, invasive moment of cultural collapse. Banned from the world of haute couture after he accidentally-on-purpose trashes a runway show, Brüno has to retreat to the low-culture world of the US, where he must become a celebrity to survive at all. In his degrading, Candide-like progression, he embraces ignorance in a way that moves far beyond a simple tweaking of the yahoos (to mix Voltaire and Swift).

This process of failing up mimics the trajectory of too many non-fictional celebrities. By the film's end, when Elton John uses a Mexican laborer as a piano stool (in a reprise of a joke from earlier in the film), we realize that the stars who appear with Brüno to ratify his celebrity status have been punked as thoroughly as the hapless Christian Evangelical "gay converters" and Deep South hunters Brüno encountered earlier.

The scene with the hunters includes the most surprising use of night-vision photography in any film. And in a movie in which each scene works, two scenes stand out. In one, Brüno flaunts his adopted African baby on a TV talk show in Dallas before an audience of African-American housewives. In the big set piece, Brüno, now supposedly gone straight and super-macho, begins to make sweet love to his male assistant inside a steel wrestling cage in an Arkansas arena. The audience erupts in a frenzy of violence, seemingly more upset by witnessing two men kissing than anything else it's ever seen.

"Excess of sorrow laughs," writes William Blake in his Proverbsof Hell. Brüno is very funny, but its view of our world is a sad one, as sad as an episode of Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood. Brüno also includes what will surely be the only good Darfur pun in a movie this year.

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