Brüno is irreverent? Yah, vassever

For all its daring pretensions, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno ends up in bed with the very celebrities it mocks.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

Sacha Baron Cohen sure has balls. If you’ve seen his latest film, Brüno, about an uber-camp fashionista who wants to be ‘the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler’, you’ll know what I’m talking about. In the film, Cohen bares all and gets inches away from being beaten up by orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, a terrorist in Beirut, and pumped-up spectators at an Arkansas cage fight.

You’d have been hard pressed not to notice the recent worldwide premieres of Brüno. In London, posters of Cohen as the gay fashion reporter, dressed in garish yellow lederhosen, have been plastered on buses and the Underground. In recent months Brüno’s public stunts have included gate-crashing the Milan fashion week and crash landing, butt-up and dressed as an angel, in Eminem’s lap at the MTV music awards.

So, after Ali G, the gangsta from Staines, and Borat Sagdiyev, the misogynistic, anti-Semitic Kazakh reporter, Cohen now brings us the comic character Brüno, whose fictional career history includes working as a urinal at Klub Apartheid in Vienna and hosting the TV shows Get Uber It and Funkyzeit mit Brüno.

At the start of the new feature film, it looks like Brüno’s career is about to hit rock bottom. After being kicked out of a Milan fashion show, he becomes a pariah in the world of trend-setters. His young, Asian boyfriend dumps him for an older man and Funkyzeit is taken off the airwaves. But, as Brüno would say, ‘no big deal, vassever’. He still believes he can be ein superstar and with the help of his podgy assistant, Lutz, he embarks on a delicious journey through America for the purpose of making heterosexual males visibly uncomfortable in the presence of a gay foreigner in a mesh t-shirt.

Cohen has been celebrated for the ways in which his comic characters expose the prejudices and inanity of celebrities, politicians and ordinary Americans – whether it’s Ali G holding up an unflattering mirror to ‘wiggas’ (whites who ‘act black’) and testing the establishment’s unease with youth culture, Borat getting southern Americans to sing along to anti-Semitic songs, or Brüno cajoling models and designers to agree to such outrageous things as ‘fashion saves a lot more lives than doctors’.

In Brüno, photo models, hicks and parents of child models are the main victims of Cohen’s comedic ambushes. For all his piss-takes of celebrities – which admittedly provide some of the funniest moments in the film – the stars are actually in on the joke. In a scripted scene at the end of Brüno, Sting, Bono, Elton John, Slash and Snoop Dogg record a song with Brüno. The film is about Brüno’s search for fame, yet those who have pursued that same goal and reached it are let off the hook.

Celebrities are generally in the know by now – after all, who in Hollywood hasn’t heard of Ali G, Borat or Brüno? Today, being worthy of getting ridiculed by, or appearing next to, one of Cohen’s characters is surely just a status marker. In fact, though Cohen is generally seen as a no holds barred satirist, he clearly cares about celebrities’ feelings, having agreed to delete a scene from the film featuring Michael Jackson’s sister La Toya, ‘out of respect for the Jackson family’.

So these days, instead of ambushing celebs, Cohen has to make do with poking fun at their antics, though poor Paula Abdul still fell for his act. Brüno persuades her to use a Mexican gardener as a chair – explaining that his new studio furniture has not been delivered yet – and proceeds to interview her about her humanitarian work.

Brüno pokes fun at the celebrity craze for adopting black babies and/or worthy causes. ‘Madonna has one, Brad and Angelina have one, now Brüno has one!’ he exclaims, before lifting an African baby boy, whom he swapped for an iPod, out of a cardboard box at the airport luggage pick-up area. And on causes célèbres, he says: ‘Clooney has Darfur, Sting has the Amazon and Bono has AIDS’. Brüno decides to take on a mission of his own so that he, too, can be admired around the world.

So he sets off for ‘Middle Earth’ to mediate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He interviews a former Mossad agent and a Palestinian academic, asking them why they are so obsessed with hummus. ‘Isn’t pita bread the real enemy?’, asks the carb-conscious Brüno. When they explain that he is confusing Hamas with a bean dip, which they both agree is a healthy food, Brüno says: ‘Good, we’re getting somewhere.’

Brokering peace turns out to be a hopeless task so Brüno tries to get kidnapped instead, as this will ensure his image is broadcast around the world. But the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ brigade officer who he interviews clearly doesn’t think the gay Austrian is worth abducting. Brüno tries to give him some fashion tips: ‘Al Qaeda is so 2001′, he says, and ‘your king Osama looks like a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa Claus’.

In short: the film has its moments and Cohen has got cojones. The problem is that when Cohen turns his comic characters into the subjects of feature-length films, he doesn’t quite manage to sustain the biting satire that he pulled off so brilliantly in Da Ali G Show, where all three characters first appeared. In that series, each episode was shocking, surprising and hilarious, leaving you wanting more. Eighty-three minutes of Brüno, however, leaves you feeling exhausted.

The film will have you gasping, gaping, cringing and shrieking for what seems like an eternity, but the shock factor has been yanked up at the expense of intelligent humour. There’s Brüno’s boyfriend, Diesel, serving champagne out of his back side, swingers having hardcore group sex, Brüno and Lutz engaging in public displays of homoeroticism, and the gay reporter performing fellatio on the spirit of one of the Milli Vanilli singers in front of a psychic.

Also, Brüno has the exact same storyline as Borat, which according to the film’s poster was ‘so 2006′. Both films are about a foreign reporter travelling to America, unattractive assistant in tow, to bamboozle ordinary folks and the odd celebrity, before getting depressed and despondent halfway through the film but finally reuniting with their assistants after an intimate tussle and then coming to some sort of self-realisation.

Despite his shock-and-awe humour, it is also refreshing to see a comedian being quite indiscriminate in who he offends. Cohen targets Jews and Muslims, African-Americans and ‘white trash’. (It’s disappointingly predictable, though, that ‘white trash’ people seem to be the most frequent and easy butt of Cohen’s jokes.) And everyone from the Austrian ambassador to Britain to gay rights activists have launched predictable charges of offensiveness at Cohen.

It’s just a shame that, in the end, Cohen seems as reverent of the world of celebrity as Brüno is.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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