Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bruno (Larry Charles, 2009)


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


Wow Gold said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Wow Gold said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DKL said...

You know, I liked the movie and I feel like it did make good points.

For example, the ending skit at the UFC arena (or wherever that was) was pretty insightful given the crowd reaction:

Bruno initially comes out and convinces the audience that he's "Straight Dan" or whatever ridiculous moniker it was that he came up with, but then when the audience learns that he's gay, they get REALLY angry...

As in, it becomes very disconcerting as to how angry they get; it feels like a riot would've broken out at any minute and this feels like something of a reality that gay people have to deal with in an extremely homophobic atmosphere; it's... pretty scary (the actors even almost get hit by a chair in the octagon, actually).

And it's like what Aaron McGruder said on the commentary track for "The Story of Gangstalicious part 2": y'all bought into it earlier... why you gonna be angry when you find out he's gay?

Okay, sure, Cohen used a fantastical setup in order to come to this extreme reaction, but I still think that there's something to be taken away from that.

Also, the irony is that UFC is like 2 fucking dudes hugging in the ring for like 20 minutes; how is that NOT gay?

The only real difference between a match and what the actors were doing is that the two fighters don't make out (but they hug after the match is done, of course).

I was also impressed at the irony in the minister's answer to Bruno's "what is a heterosexual thing to do?"

And the minister is all: go work out and sweat with other men.

And I'm like "what?"

Anyway, there was a ton of facepalm moments in the movie.

As for the exaggeration and how it puts gay people in a bad light... I've seen the argument made:

"So it's okay to make fun of homophobes... but not of gay people?"

And, it kinda makes sense to me... but I don't know; I'd like to think that Cohen didn't pull any punches and that people who don't see past the myths being proposed in the movie deserve to be made fun of.

As for the comments about how it might just be the same thing over again, I think I agree with that...

To some extent, which one you like might very well depend on which Cohen persona you enjoyed the most; my favorite was Ali G, really.

But, yes, it's the same thing, but re-tooled for the gay issue... but I still found it funny anyway.

Noel Vera said...

You kidding me? One reason why I prefer gay people making fun of their own is because they're funnier at it than anyone else. In those terms, Cohen's an amateur.

The UFC scene I didn't like because it was straights vs. gays, but also a relatively prosperous guy (remember, he can afford to jet all over the world on his publicity campaign) against all these people who apparently don't have the money to get their teeth done. Leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Borat was near foolproof (well, he would be foolproof if he came from a fictional country) because he comes from an economic status not very far or lower than from the people he made fun of; you don't have that here.

DKL said...

Long Post is Long.

Part 1

Well, I do remember some of the skits in the original Bruno and there actually was a lot of emphasis on making fun of people who were on the same financial level as Bruno was; there were way more fashion show antics in the original TV series (one particularly shocking suggestion was that people without fashion sense should be sent to concentration camps... no mention of Jews there, but you know where Cohen was driving the conversation towards)...

I guess it helps that Bruno wasn't banned from all the Milan fashion shows or whatever at that time.

But, yes, the TV show had considerably more fun with people like celebrity hairstylists and whatnot; that was actually missing from this movie and it's mostly everyday people that were targets now that I'm thinking about it more.

It could have to do with the familiarity of the character that prevented Cohen from getting more high profile people to play around with (on that note, the single greatest moment from the original show was 60 Minutes personality Andy Rooney slamming Ali G really REALLY badly).

It could very well be that my perception of this movie is balanced out by what I remember of the original show (you have all the fashionista fun-poking there... then this is just extra stuff that could've conceivably been in the show, but didn't make it during the first go-around), which is why I wasn't too distraught by the financial disparity of the people being made fun of (and even then... I still see the reactions from the people being setup as really unreasonable... like, even if it was an exaggeratedly poor and gay character, the reactions might've been just as bad).

Anyway, yeah, I dunno... I was still pretty shocked by the UFC thing; I can't remember the last time I've seen people get so angry over something so trivial (on that note, no one would've been particularly angry if it was two women in the ring kissing... that's a funny issue, actually... by virtue of male chauvinism, lesbianism is made to be more acceptable because it's fetishized... I am admittedly guilty of this, to be honest).

I dunno... maybe it isn't too great that someone so rich should be making fun of less fortunate people; never really thought of it like that while watching the movie mainly because the "rich-on-rich" stuff was already covered in the TV show... but this works under the assumption that this and the show are one thing, not two separate entities (which is not really how I viewed the Borat movie either... I saw it as a continuation of the TV show, but with a story and skits that were, while amusing, not as funny and re-watchable).

That being said, I'm under the impression that self-ridicule isn't always necessarily more funny or more responsible; Dave Chappelle pretty much had to turn his back on his show and $50 Million after 2 seasons given how irresponsible he thought it was becoming (or at least, this is what I remember of it)...

And it probably was, but... I don't know; it was a black dude making fun of black people... but, at one point, he didn't think that it necessarily made it better (oh... the Wiki article for this is really interesting).

This stuff is real sticky and all I can really say is that the reactions, despite the exaggeration used to get there, are kinda disconcerting.

DKL said...

Part 2:

On the other hand, maybe the exaggeration brings us to reactions that don't have so much truth in them; can't say for sure... this is pretty much the same issue surrounding Borat, really.

Okay, it's rich gay fashion dude (there was a great jab in the movie: "That's when I realized that the fashion world was superficial."), but, I dunno... honestly, if people weren't so in the dark, they would've known that it was a ruse right away; much of the humor I got out of the movie is knowing that the image that Cohen proposes is just REALLY fake, yet there's all these chumps that buy into it (even with hesitation, they just kinda play into anyway... on that note, Andy Rooney and Donald Trump saw the ruse right away, interestingly enough).

But maybe it's conceited to say that these people are chumps since it implies that I know better, when I probably don't and this is where I could actually see there being a problem: the idea that the rest of the world is so uninformed when, truth of the matter is, they didn't have an opportunity to expand their horizons or whatever [due to economic or educational limitations in their background] and not be aware of all this stuff to begin with... going about it the way that Cohen has doesn't give people an opportunity to get educated, just exploited.

But, again... this is something I'd say for both movies, not just Bruno; by all means... even though Borat is poor like the people he makes fun of in his movie, I don't really see it as being any "better" than Bruno making fun of people from that same background; in the end, it could still be perceived as conceited given that it's the same dude playing both characters anyway.

Anyway, this is sticky, but I'll lean towards the idea that the movie does offer something valuable to think about, despite its possible problems; that's just how I feel at this point in time.

No, I'm not gay, but I tend to think about gay issues a lot for whatever reason (it was even a sub-component in this gender studies class that I took about hip-hop... the gay rappers featured are interesting in that, from what was presented in the class anyway, they kinda fall into the same trap of hyper-sexuality found in regular hip-hop)...

For example, the movie Becket: it was ridiculously gay, but I'm not sure if this was acknowledged when it first came out (or whether or not it is acknowledged now, despite how obvious it is that Henry II wants to jump Becket's bones... I've not listened to Peter O' Toole's commentary track yet, so I don't know what he thinks).

Anyway, yes... this post is long and convoluted and I'm not sure if there's a solid argument in here; as best as I could, I try to look at both the good and bad sides.

It's contradictory, but I'm just trying to see both sides of the argument in a way that vaguely makes sense to me; thinking about it more deeply, I honestly couldn't see Borat making fun of poor people being any "better" than Bruno making fun of the same people just because one persona has a financially different background than the other... it's still the same dude who, by all means, probably doesn't live the impoverished life that Borat has or maybe doesn't even lead a life that's financially similar to the people he makes fun of, and, in that context, it'd still kinda would be like Bruno making fun of poorer people anyway, even within the guise of the Borat persona.

Uh, yeah, I don't know.

This is just REALLY sticky.

Noel Vera said...

On principle I would judge a movie on its own, not as part of a larger work. Some circumstances I'd do that--if the movie is more clearly part of a larger context, or if the artist meant it to be seen that way. Haven't heard from Cohen otherwise, so I see Bruno as is, and he's frankly a spoiled brat.

And yep, elements in the gay community (David Ehrenstein, David Rakoff, to name a few) do not appreciate this kind of humor--playing into stereotypes ostensibly to debunk them, ultimately confirming them instead. It's a chancy game Cohen is into, and he's not going to get it right all the time. I'd say this one is a misfire.

DKL said...

Yeah, I'm reading through some of the comments in the article and what catches my eye is that a lot of people are concerned with perception via this movie...

When I went in, I pretty much assumed that none of the proposed images of gay people were true (or, to the very least, very WILDLY inaccurate).

[also, note in the comments that there are people that talk about how homosexuality is simply about sexual preference... I use to think that way, but learned that that isn't the case at all depending on who you talk to, actually; men or women could be SEXUALLY attracted to the opposite sex, but only find solace in the companionship of people of the same sex... that could possibly be considered gay, yet people won't admit it (my reference to Becket, for example)... uh, yeah... it's this really big issue thingy and it's not so simple as some people make it out to be]

I think the problem lies in who might be watching... there are actually people that go in and believe that what they know of the myth of gay life is true and, in a way, have it confirmed by the movie.

Cohen was probably aiming for a scenario where you either get the joke or you become the joke (if a person doesn't see him/herself in the people in the movie who made fools of themselves, they become the joke by claiming that "I'm not like them" when, in fact, they might actually be)... but, like you said, shit is risky...

Borat has the same problem; depending on who's watching, they might actually think that this depiction proposed is true... they become the joke, but at the same time, there's this problem that they didn't actually learn anything from being the joke.

It's essentially a scenario where, unless told otherwise, the people who were the joke don't actually learn anything... no one from the joke side is given an opportunity to "cross over" and it could very well be that Cohen goes about it in a way where they don't deserve to "cross-over" and he just leaves those people to their own devices.

This is pretty much the flaw of Cohen's "ambush humor"... I mean, it's cool if you get it (but I'm not saying that I completely "get it"), but it doesn't anything for people who don't know any better (whether by education limitations or prejudice).

Anyway, yeah... it's complicated; there's like a million ways for me to look a this movie, really.

Noel Vera said...

Jokes have their limits.

I agree, Borat has its problems too, but it's pretty much squared away comapred to Bruno. Cohen might have thought the movie version over a little mroe carefully.

DKL said...

I'll likely see Bruno again when I pick it up on video and I'll try to see where I stand, but I'd probably still have a hard time just sticking to one idea with regards to this one; it's seriously too sticky given the subject matter and the way Cohen goes about it... it'd be hard for me to feel too definite about anything with regards to the film...

Though, I did find it funny and entertaining, overall; that's the only thing I'm kinda certain of.

(but then there's the issue of whether or not it's irresponsible to find it funny, which I don't want to go into anymore given that I'll be running around in circles for forever... maybe it is, maybe it isn't... I don't know at this point in time)

On the topic of gay depiction, I'm curious:

Have you ever seen Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche?

What I really liked about the depiction of homosexuality in that movie is that the main character, who is openly gay, is just like any other dude... you know, like people you know in real life; it's a very natural depiction that I was very fond of.

Anyway, yeah, plugging that in since I really liked that movie (Van Sant's first film which I think he made with $15,000 of his own money or something).

While we're at it, I guess I might as well plug-in Becket too, since I was talking about it; Peter O' Toole and Richard Burton were great.

(I actually blind-bought the thing on Blu-Ray mainly because of Burton, who I really really liked in Sideny Lumet's film adaptation of Equus)

Noel Vera said...

I love Van Sant's films.

Have you seen Paranoid Park? Lovely bit of filmmaking, one of Chris Doyle's best work too.

Not as big a fan of Becket. Visual style's flat, I think O'Toole chews scenery. But Burton is impressive.

DKL said...

Wow, really?

I was actually pretty into the sets and stuff (costumes, not as much though... especially that thing that Henry II wears at the beginning of the movie... got better though); scenes like the ex-communication of the duke worked really well visually, I felt.

Still, most of my amusement with the movie is the idea of how gay it is, yet it doesn't quite come out and say it; Peter O' Toole was really funny, I thought (I really liked the scene where he was talking about Henry III's coronation... it was almost like he was hatching a devious plan to make his former lover jealous).

As for Paranoid Park, I REALLY liked that fucking movie (I actually watched it on your recommendation a long while back)...

Though, I need to upgrade; mine seems to be pan-and-scan and not the widescreen version (which was an accident since I did get it online)... unless there isn't a widescreen version, then boo.

ANYWAY, it was a great one, I thought...

One of the various interesting things that happens is that the main male character (Alex, was it?) is actually sexually exploited by his girlfriend at one point in the movie... and I'm all:

Hey, that's interesting... I've not seen that a lot.

Noel Vera said...

I thought the excommunication worked because Burton's voice had the power and authority to damn the man to hell. He was the perfect choice for Exorcist 2.

The drama is as gay as they come, I suppose--never really pondered the homorerotic subtext in this particular drama. Tell the truth, I prefer TS Eliot's version.

DKL said...

Ah, shit... that's a really good point about Burton in that scene, actually...

Anywho, yeah... he's really brilliant with solemn delivery [just by going by Becket and Equus (movie of which maximizes his presence thanks to the wonderful monologues)]...

Are there any other movies I should see him in?