When we watched “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” we enjoyed the electricity of illicit subversion, as Sacha Baron Cohen’s fictional Borat led us on a punk’d road trip through Middle America.
Cohen offered eloquently serrated commentary on American life, and he did it without back pedaling or compunction. His courage was breath-taking, the way he sang the Kazakhstan national anthem in front of a rodeo crowd – right after rousing up their anti-terrorist sentiments. Or the way he undertook an etiquette lesson at a genteel southern dinner table accompanied by a black prostitute.
We laughed with a sort of SachaBaronCohenfreude, an insulated discomfort, as other people squirmed. We enjoyed watching him expose the darkest and deeply ridiculous side of humanity, without us being implicated. In the name of entertainment – and the ironic affection we built up for the obliviously bigoted Borat – we turned a blind eye to the humanity of those satirical targets.
We ignored the entrapment game he played. Comedy, both Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes observed (a long time before Cohen set concept to paper), is our superior laughter at inferior beings. That superiority is our temporary comfort. So, it was more convenient to think of Borat as the gross-out lovechild of Alexis De Tocqueville and a gremlin, than a gotcha bully along the lines of Michael Moore.
So – with Cohen’s latest movie, “Brüno,” what do we have? Another mockumentary starring Cohen as Brüno – a stereotypically swishy, Eurotrashy fashion show presenter with leopardskin underwear, who decides he’s going to become the “biggest Austrian Superstar since Hitler.”
His journey through America amounts to an expose of the tightly sphinctered phobiascape of heterosexuality, much of it centrally located in Dubya’s America. The idea, of course, is that his vampy, Pan-like lustiness is their worst nightmare, the doppelganger to their sanctimoniousness.
There are the requisite scenes designed to elicit audience howls of disbelief, including a revolving penis that performs a hula-hoop jiggle, and energetic sexual scenes between Brüno and a boyfriend that are cartoonish in their exaggeration.
And the movie uses the same documentary-style approach, in which the vampy, uber-exhibitionistic Brüno targets the unsuspecting. That includes presidential candidate and Texas congressman Ron Paul; an African American TV audience that listens and watches in horror as Brüno parades an adopted black baby he has dubbed OJ; the spirited patrons of a cage wrestling tournament; and a pastor who believes he can counsel gay people into being straight.
The scenes that revolve around the embarrassment of real people have the makings of delicious ambush, the giving of enough rope so they can hang themselves.
. But this time around, Cohen comes across as a hanging judge, bent on cruel guerilla-style humiliation. This time we can’t avoid the humanity of those victims. Just as I never dreamed I’d feel empathy for Charlton Heston until I saw Michael Moore harass the aging actor in “Bowling for Columbine,” I felt a similar twinge for Ron Paul, as Brüno undresses unexpectedly in front of him, causing him to exit. (A similar scene involving LaToya Jackson has been cut out, in light of Michael Jackson’s death, to avoid unwanted controversy.)
Perhaps what makes the exercise so flat this time is Cohen’s off-note character. It’s not enough to create a satirical cliché, there has to be an extra ring to the character. Think of Hedwig, for instance, or Mike Meyers’ Dieter. Those accents have that perfect archness and a sort of ringing identity of their own.
Frankly, Brüno isn’t that great a comic creation. He has some wonderful Teutonic malapropisms – if that’s what you call the Sid Caesar-style false German words he uses, such as (I am writing this as I heard it) Geschwindigkeitbegrendzung. But my Austrian accent is better than his. And as a living breathing creation Brüno is secondhand, forced and counterfeit. You don’t see Brüno but Cohen the puppetmaster.
While I have little doubt the movie will make money, either in the theatrical run, or its long afterlife, I believe the consensus even among the diehard fans will be that this movie’s second best. I believe they’ll miss a sense of innocence – the essential ingredient to redeem the gross out factor. Without it, we’re just looking – even if we’re laughing – at revolving penises.