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Dustin Putman

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Brüno  (2009)
3 Stars
Directed by Larry Charles.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Banagale.
2009 – 82 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 8, 2009.
With Jew-fearing, Pamela Anderson-obsessed Kazakhstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev now safely behind him, the fearlessly brilliant Sacha Baron Cohen (2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street") disappears within his latest outrageous personage, that of an ultra-gay, fame-seeking fashionista in "Brüno." Shot, like 2006's "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," as a pseudo-documentary, with Cohen's character alternating between scripted material and improvised interviews and run-ins with unsuspecting celebs, politicians, and the common public at large, "Brüno" may lack the full-blown novelty of that previous film, but is just as stingingly subversive and hilariously pointed. Beyond sheer entertainment and shock value, his duty is to see how regular people react when faced with deviations from the societal norm, and then to call them out on the ignorance, intolerance and/or prejudices that still very much exist in the U.S. and abroad. If Cohen doesn't do it, who will?

When 19-year-old Brüno (Sacha Baron Cohen) is fired as host of German talk show "Funkyzeit mit Brüno" after making a scene on the catwalk during Milan's Fashion Week, he and adoring new assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) head for Hollywood. Meeting with agents, managers, producers, two bubble-headed PR consultants, and Paula Abdul (who sits on a Mexican gardener posing as furniture while discussing her philanthropic work), Brüno's one and only goal is to become famous. When he is shunned from acting after making a disastrous appearance as an extra on television drama "Medium," Brüno briefly travels to "Middle Earth" (i.e. the Middle East) in a bid to become charitable. After quickly being run out of there, he opts to steal an African baby from Nairobi ("just like Madonna and Brangelina"). With nothing working out as he had hoped and his sexuality seeming to drag him down, Brüno's journey for respect and celebrity finally takes him to the heartlands of America for a crash course in Cockaholics Anonymous.

An eye-opening study in modern-day naiveté, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, "Brüno" actually has a sobering purpose beyond its in-your-face outrageousness. The film is all the better for it, almost ceaselessly funny even as the viewer shields their eyes from the horrors being presented. Numerous explicit sex scenes and graphic instances of nudity (complete with twirling penises and a yelling urethra) earn the picture what has to be the hardest R rating in the history of the MPAA, but far more disturbing are scenes such as one where awful interviewed stage parents enthusiastically agree to put their toddlers in racially and religiously insensitive, even life-threatening, situations for the chance to get them in front of the camera. In another, Brüno talks to a former reality star on a pilot talk show and shows her a photo of Jamie-Lynn Spears' sonogram, to which she criticizes the unborn child's large hands and D-list status and suggests it be aborted.

Early gags are pure silliness and good for some boisterous chortles—Brüno is cast as a juror extra on "Medium" and proceeds to overact and hog the spotlight from the main cast—but by the time the setting expands beyond L.A. and Brüno begins mixing it up with a Middle America ill-equipped to deal with Brüno's diversity, the film becomes far more provocative as it exposes the gross homophobia some people wear on their sleeve and others keep barely hidden under their skin. A chat with a former gay man fooling himself into believing he is now straight is a scream as the delusional guy talks about the dangers of owning phallic-shaped musical instruments and the need to learn how to "put up" with the least annoying woman a man can endure. A hunting trip with a trio of southerners leads to a talk around a campfire that finds Brüno comparing them to the "Sex and the City" ladies before rendering the three men speechless. A meeting with a karate instructor, a stint at an Army base camp, and a trip to a swingers' party are rousingly amusing, so ridiculous that the targets' clueless reactions are nothing but wholly believable.

Reteaming after their respective partnership on "Borat," director Larry Charles (2008's "Religulous") and star Sacha Baron Cohen are, at the threat of sounding clichéd, a match made in heaven. The narrative is not as tightly woven as in their past collaboration—whereas "Borat" had a finite destination in mind during the character's cross-country trek, "Brüno" bounces around with less of a finish line—but that scarcely matters since every skit and set-piece works. Even if the character isn't aware of where he is going, director Larry Charles never loses sight of the big picture. As for Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor proves what a chameleon he is by so plausibly becoming a character diametrically opposite to Borat. From hopping around a "God Hates Fags" rally while being strapped in S&M garb to an equally leather-clad Lutz, to mistaking Ron Paul for RuPaul and trying to seduce the Texas Congressman in a bedroom with lit candles and wine, to chatting on the telephone with a talent agent while receiving an anal bleaching, to rocking new baby O.J. in a cradle by way of a dildo strapped to an exercise bike, Cohen is not only brave, but something of a genius.

Rounding things out with a performance that pairs together Bono, Sting, Elton John, Snoop Dogg, Slash and Chris Martin in a skewed anthem about equality, "Brüno" is a politically-incorrect savior, that rare comedy that revels in bad taste while also actually having something worthwhile to say about the world we live in and the senselessness of stereotypes. A pretty consistent laugh riot for the duration of its brief, just-right 82-minute running time, "Brüno" is brazenly shrewd and fully in command, a work of conceptual art as well as an informative guide to exotic sexual positions, to boot.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman