One had expectations. Larry Charles' 2006 mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was made for a slim $18 million and generated some $260 million worldwide, earning both director and writer-producer Sacha Baron Cohen the reputation of pop provocateurs as they interview hapless Americans under misleading pretences, exposing latent racism and Anti-Semitism.
(Why Kazakhstan, by the way? Cohen uses the name; the language, written and read, is made-up gibberish. Couldn't he have given Borat's country something made-up, instead of the moniker of an actual country too small and powerless to fight back?)
The filmmakers attempt to repeat the stunt with Bruno (2009). Bruno comes with an estimated price tag of $42 million, an altogether more expensive affair though the picture itself doesn't necessarily look more expensive (the amount breaks down into a reputed production budget of $20 to $25 million, plus perceived added value to Universal of $20 million). Distributors pay a higher price for a known quantity, even if returns are slimmer (Bruno earned a relatively smaller $136 million worldwide to date); that smaller amount is almost as good as cash in the bank.
One wonders if perhaps the filmmakers should have heeded an old warning: repetition kills, or a gag isn't as funny the second time around. Borat was a freak accident; it proposed the terrifying idea that people would find two ugly, hairy men mashing their buttocks in each others' faces funny (20th Century Fox timidly released it in a scant 800 theaters). Part of its appeal--well, a huge part of its appeal--is the surprising fact that audiences did find two grown men grinding their nose into each others' behinds not just funny but hilarious (Fox quickly put the picture in 2,500 theaters when it earned $29 million on its first weekend).
Repetition kills surprise; that's the downfall of most if not all remakes, sequels, sophomore efforts from a filmmaking team. With Bruno we pretty much know what we're getting, and so does the rest of the world--the number and size of celebrity 'gotchas' is considerably smaller, less varied. Some of the 'unstaged encounters' either look less than spontaneous, or the victims seem to have quickly suspected what they're in for and are understandably cautious.
Bruno has more problems than mere freshness--Cohen has misconceived the character in a number of ways. Borat for all his cluelessness and lack of impulse control was an innocent abroad who traveled America with Azamat (Ken Davitian), his intermittently faithful if considerably more hirsute Sancho Panza; he was an impoverished Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of (even if he didn't see it that way) anti-Semitism and racism and xenophobia. Bruno's idealism is half assumed pose, not so much a humanitarian quest as a calculated publicity bid. Borat's is the classic American story, the immigrant underdog who comes to America seeking knowledge and understanding and, of course, a beautiful woman (he wants to impregnate Pamela Sue Anderson and give her many children). Bruno is a media-spawned creature desperate to be noticed and his victims are decidedly less prosperous (the Alabaman hunters, the Arkansan cage-fight audience), more deserving of sympathy than scorn from an audience. Perhaps the crucial difference is that Borat conducts his odyssey on a shoestring (he drives an ice cream truck to Los Angeles to seek out his precious Pamela Sue). Bruno, like his picture, enjoys a decidedly bigger budget--hiring a consultant to help with his celebrity image; flying hither and thither to foster world peace; swapping out an Ipod for an African child a la Madonna. Bruno may want to establish himself as a champion for gay acceptance but he does so with deep pockets, and the effect is rather alienating.
Bruno isn't without some laughs. His all-Velcro suit is a howling success, and any occasion where a Milanese fashion show's security is compelled to chuck you out for the sake of public peace of mind has to be an occasion to celebrate. An episode with a minister who specializes in treating homosexuals is funny for its sheer wrongheadedness (though one can't help but feel a touch of admiration for the heroically patient minister, especially when Bruno informs him that he has "amazing blow-job lips." "These lips were made to praise Jesus," the minister primly informs him). His Panza here, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) is a suitably sad and sweet assistant's assistant, an adoring disciple who takes much abuse from homophobes and from Bruno himself, for the sake of his beloved idol. The few occasions where Bruno takes shots at someone with deeper pocketbooks than himself one feels comfortable enough to savor the humiliation (I'm thinking of Paula Abdul invited to sit on an illegal immigrant bent over on all fours, and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul enduring an unsubtle sexual pass, then being mistaken for RuPaul).
All hail Cohen's intent--he had hoped to do for homophobes what he managed to do for racists, anti-Semitists, and xenophobes, but the scattershot approach injures the implied victors (Man-hungry gays with a bizarre fashion sense? So not stereotypical!) almost as much as the intended victims. Send this one back to Austria, ASAP.
First published in Businessworld 9.4.09