Monday, July 20, 2009
Just Absurd: Bruno
Three years ago in the comedy smash Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen engaged in a naked wrestling match with a much fatter and possibly hairier opponent in which the only thing obscuring our view of Cohen’s penis was a (conspicuously long) digital black box. This time around, in Bruno, Cohen leaves less to the imagination, at one point allowing “his” (or a stand-in’s) penis to be captured in a well-lit close-up of goofy genital gymnastics – an exhibition of flaccid foolishness in which to “look Cohen in the eye” would mean to stare harder. But when I tell you that Cohen exposes himself in his follow-up to Borat, I’m not referring to bouts of nudity. Instead I’m referring to the way that Cohen unzips his fly, drops his pants and reveals his true intentions as a filmmaker and performance artist. Lauded by many in the aftermath of Borat as a brilliant satirist and daring social commentator, Cohen proves to be nothing of the sort. Though Bruno, like Borat, includes moments of satire and social commentary, Cohen’s motives are simpler and less brave. His one and only mission is to shock us into laughter.
To his credit, he frequently does just that. Cohen’s brilliantly absurd antics might not be as noble as his supporters have suggested, but the penis isn’t the only area of the human anatomy with which Cohen is familiar. He’s also an expert of the funny bone. They say you can’t debate humor, but to absolutely refuse to laugh at Cohen is to be a slave to good taste, and there’s some irony in that because one of the things Cohen does with near perfect precision is to create comedy out of Americans’ strict adherence to politeness and compassion. In Borat that meant trying the patience of a car salesman, a driving instructor, a culture coach, a TV news personality, a group of feminists and an etiquette teacher, etcetera, by saying and doing things that no right-minded American would say or do. In Bruno it means tormenting a fortuneteller, a group of Southern hunters and some mid-coitus swingers, among others. In each of those cases, the ability of Cohen’s marks to remain unduly cool in the face of social taboo, outright disrespect or general annoyance, and the ability of Cohen to keep them teetering on that edge of exasperation, is as astonishing as it is hilarious. In Cohen’s best moments he is working without a net, risking entire scenes and sometimes even his entire shtick by daring to provoke his onscreen and offscreen marks (the audience) right up to the breaking point.
That Cohen sometimes goes too far is inevitable. Going too far is a recurring theme in comedy. Without crossing the line of acceptability, you never learn where the line is, nor do you ever create the chance for the line to be erased and redrawn. Without subsequent entertainers pushing the envelope, Don Rickles would still be considered edgy. That said, it could be that Cohen is paving the way for a new brand of no-feelings-spared comedy in which we learn to forget the ugliness of the slaughterhouse in order to enjoy without reservation the juicy comedy burger that the assembly line produces. It’s more likely, however, that Cohen, like Andrew Dice Clay or Tom Green before him, will cease to be relevant once the comedy pack catches up with him or once he pushes the audience so far out of its comfort zone that it refuses to follow him. One thing’s for sure, a future comedian will one day make Cohen’s antics as unshocking as those of quintessential shock-jock Howard Stern. But for now, Cohen may have reached his limit. The moment he decided to wave his schlong on camera (and just wait until you see that in Blu-ray!), Cohen announced that he had reached the Pacific Ocean of his creative vision. There is no more New World for him to explore. The fertile ground lies behind him, and in this case there’s no going back. (As the swingers scene proves, the black boxes of MPAA censorship actually increase the humor. Yet once you’ve bared all, you can’t reinvent yourself as a tease.)
That’s the trouble with creating an act based on shock value. At some point we begin to expect the unexpected, and then that portion of the thrill is gone. Bruno, for all its outlandishness, doesn’t throw off our equilibrium the way Borat did. It can’t. But there are methods of Cohen’s comedy that are somewhat timeless. Undoubtedly the most brilliant moment of the picture occurs when Cohen’s titular Bruno, a hugely over-the-top homosexual celebrity wannabe from Austria, sits around a campsite with three red state (and perhaps even redneck) hunters. Having already tormented them with his outlandishly gay shenanigans – even though, per the plot, Bruno is pretending to be heterosexual – Bruno looks up at the night sky and declares that the stars make him think of all the men in the world. What follows is maybe 10 seconds of fantastically awkward silence in which the hunters refuse to make eye contact with anyone and Bruno flashes his gaze around at his companions, a cat-who-ate-the-canary smile momentarily slipping across Cohen’s face, marking the only time he seems to break character. What’s funny about this scene has nothing to do with satire or social politics. What’s funny is feeling – and it’s truly visceral – the hunters’ bewilderment. Trapped in a situation in which there is no established course of social etiquette, they have no choice but to quietly endure. And so that’s what they do.
No one gets hurt in that scene, nor is anyone actually in danger of getting hurt, and that makes it about as universally funny as Bruno gets. This film isn’t set up for innocent laughs the way that Borat is because Cohen’s star characters work in different ways. Borat, above all else, is a naïve foreigner. To all those who encounter him in the film, even those who are offended by him, his behavior is perceived as being without malice. Bruno, on the other hand, while also foreign, isn’t such an ignoramus. In fact there’s at least one situation in which Bruno is decidedly smarter than the people he’s talking to – a scene in which only Bruno seems to know that there are two Rs in Darfur. No, in contrast to Borat, Bruno first and foremost is an annoyance. He offends not because he’s foreign, eccentric or homosexual but because he’s irritating. By changing the nature of the character, Cohen alters the nature of the response. While the truly naïve are granted almost endless patience, the jerk is afforded only limited tolerance. That’s why Bruno’s worst scene, a confrontation with one-time presidential hopeful Ron Paul, falls flat. See, there is a proper response when encountered with an unwanted (and, within the context of the scene, entirely unprofessional) sexual advance, and when Paul provides that proper response there is no reason for laughter (beyond giggles of discomfort, I suppose). The scene feels like nothing but a violation, because that’s all that it is. (A lackluster punchline related to RuPaul doesn’t help.)
Cohen’s ambushing of Paul and his dick-swinging display earlier in the picture smack of desperation, and the only people who will take pleasure in that sensation are those who believe Cohen is heartless, predatory, even a (comedy) terrorist. The thing is, while Bruno does undermine the notion that Cohen is doing anything short of striving for laughs by any means necessary, it hardly validates the accusation that Cohen’s brand of performance art is notably hateful. No one with half a brain could interpret Borat as an accurate representation of Kazakh culture, for example, nor could they see Bruno as representative of the homosexual population; we know that just by looking at him, the same way we know that Superman isn’t representative of Caucasian men. To call out Cohen for turning Average Joe into a punchline is to ignore the numerous other comedians who prey upon marks. (Heck, G-rated Jay Leno’s most famous bit, "Jaywalking," uses almost identical tactics to create laughs at the expense of the Less Than Average American.) To claim that Cohen is especially vicious is to ignore that his stunts make his character the butt of the joke more often than not. And beyond all of that, to suggest that what Cohen is doing is so significantly groundbreaking is to give him far too much credit. And that’s been the problem with discussions of Cohen all along.