Do mention the war
Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest send-up is funny if a bit too self-satisfied. Still, there’s something to offend everyone, writes Donald Clarke
NOBODY WOULD deny that Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s smash from 2007, was – or then seemed to be – one of a kind. Elements of real life had crept into comedies before, but nobody else had managed to generate so much excruciating laughter by pointing a fictional moron at members of the public. Most impressively, it felt like a real film with a middle that actually came after the beginning and before the end. We had never seen its like before and we would never see its like again.
That’s not quite how things have worked out. It would, I suppose, be fair to point out that the comedies of, say, Charlie Chaplin and WC Fields tended to obey their own rigid conventions, but, with the undeniably hilarious Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen has practically remade Borat.
His hero this time is a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista rather than a Kazakhstani reporter. Everything else is pretty much as before. The character and his sidekick travel to the United States. They confront hillbillies and persuade them to reveal their prejudices in the most absurd manner. He comes perilously close to indulging in – as opposed to parodying – negative stereotypes, but everyone laughs anyway.
Yes, everybody does laugh. Any film that can cause you to plaster both hands over your face and curl uncomfortably beneath the seat must be regarded a success. Cower as Paula Abdul accepts Brüno’s offer to use crouching Mexicans as chairs and coffee tables. Squirm as he adopts an African baby and, to screams of horror from a largely African-American talk-show audience, announces that the youngster has been christened “OJ”. Watch in discomfort as he and his (male) assistant get it on before a crowd that has gathered to watch a cage-fighting event.
As with Borat, laughs are generated as much by the character himself as by unfortunate citizens’ reactions to his appalling behaviour. Interestingly, sensitive Austrians may have more cause for complaint than easily offended gay folk.
Granting his character one of those hideous, mid-Atlantic, MTV Europe accents, Baron Cohen offers a series of Germanic gags that might give even Basil Fawlty pause for thought. He refers to one of the world’s biggest movie stars as Bradolf Pittler. He feels that the most famous Austrian of the 20th Century was misunderstood. It hardly needs to be said what he does when asked to salute. Such is the nature of identity politics that the film would never, surely, have made it onto screen if Austrians were an oppressed minority in the US.
So there is plenty of good, dubious fun to be had. Why, then, does Brüno (and Brüno) feel that bit less satisfactory than his (and its) predecessor? The novelty of the format has worn off, but there’s more to it than that.
For a start, the Austrian manages the not inconsiderable feat of being even less well developed than the Kazakhstani. Borat had a strain of sweetness beneath the idiocy, whereas Brüno is nothing more than an ignorant oik who deserves the worst that comes to him.
More damagingly, a strain of self-congratulation has crept in, and the film now seems faintly in awe of – rather than properly repulsed by – the vulgarities of celebrity. Some newspapers have tried to stir up public fury at the inclusion of twirling penises and group sex in a 16 cert picture. These vistas are, however, less disturbing than the sight of Bono, Sting, Elton John and Chris Martin turning up to be “good sports” for a pastiche charity single.
The news that Baron Cohen has gone from ridiculing famous people as Ali G to indulging them as Brüno provides incontrovertible evidence that the time has come for a change of direction.
Brüno is a funny film. But that’s enough, danke.
Seeing is believing: Sacha Baron Cohen as Brüno