Saturday, July 18, 2009
Bruno (Larry Charles, 2009), Catch Me if You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
Saw Bruno (2009) and maybe the diciest portion of the picture comes at its earliest stages, in Sacha Baron Cohen's portrait of a gay lifestyle. I can see his strategy--confirm a homophobe's worst fears of decadent homosexuals, parody said portrait, then show the humanity later on (it's the same approach used on Kazakhs in Borat), but where do you cross the line between spoofing and confirming homophobia, and does said line matter anyway?
This kind of comedy thrives on blurring such distinctions, but there are points where he doesn't so much blur as overstep completely into outright slander, and that is possibly why critical reaction is so hostile (boxoffice isn't doing so hot, either). Bluntly put, the gay community has considerably more media clout than the Kazakh community it appears (and I can't say either community is wrong to speak out, either), and their disapproval is hurting the movie's appeal.
Parts are still funny, particularly the broadsides at conservative folk (Cohen's real targets), but we've seen all this before in Borat, down to the martial-arts training session where Cohen's character learns how to deflect an attack from a Jew (a homosexual, here). Some effects take your breath away--the car that nearly runs over a motorbike, the flung folding chair that lands inches away from a pair of grappling wrestlers--but there isn't that sense of transgression and shock you had from the earlier film. This is basically a retread; amusing, but not particularly instructive.
I remember listening to a brief program about Andy Kaufman, and Cohen does take a page from his take-no-prisoners brand of comedy, but Cohen doesn't quite have Kaufman's purity--as noted in the program, when Kaufman played "Andy Kaufman," the neurotic comic celebrity suffering a nervous breakdown, even Kaufman's close friends were wondering if he was really cracking up. Cohen's too smart and sane to go that far, more's the pity, and that I think is what's missing from this picture.
Onwards with my survey of movies Spielberg--Catch Me if You Can (2002) is easily the director's finest, most fleet-footed recent work, and further evidence that Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays Frank Abagnale, Jr., the picture's true-life protagonist) was growing out of the burden of supercelebrityhood imposed on him by the movie Titanic (not to mention its music score is easily John Williams' least characteristic, hence my favorite).
Part of it is the material, of course: a nineteen-year-old acting out the darker aspect of the American Dream by constantly reinventing himself--what's not to like? Spielberg's usually assertive camera plays an uncharacteristically subdued role here, and to my mind hasn't been better in years...especially love the shot of Frank on his first day of school standing by the blackboard as fellow students pass by, heaping wisecracks on his head. Spielberg holds the shot, recording Frank's intensifying resentment, watching his face and body language closely as he squares his shoulders, takes the various insults flung at him and on the spot creates the persona of a substitute French teacher. It's our first glimpse of Frank's capabilities, as simple and precise a summation of the man's brilliance as anything in the picture.
But more than the '70s milieu or the return of the old-fashioned Spielberg, what gave me the sharpest pang of nostalgia were Frank's counterfeiting activities. Worked in a bank some years back, and one of our activities involved applying for an externally-funded loan on evidence that was, well, manufactured (For the record the bank in question stopped the practice, and the loans involved have all been paid off by now). Smudging signatures, gluing-and-pasting, simulating printed text with hand and ink and magnifying glass (all that was missing in Catch was the copier machine, which has since added all kind of tricks to the counterfeiter's diverse bag), watching Frank at work brings back my semi-criminal past. Ah, life.