Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Bruno" Review

I admire his intentions, and have nothing but respect for Sacha Baron Cohen's comic creations, but "Borat" is admittedly a tough act to follow. "Bruno" goes further, digs deeper, and offers an even bolder take on exposing American prejudice and hypocrisy than his first, and yet never feels as elegant a balancing act of fiction and non-fiction, commentary and crudity, structure and spontaneity.

In a thematic sense, "Bruno" is a much more sprawling film than "Borat" was, and the people, events, institutions, lifestyles, and religions Cohen skewers are too diverse to ever cobble a coherent narrative from. He and Director Larry Charles ("Borat," "Religulous") try admirably, but never quite succeed. "Bruno" scores almost as many laughs as its predecessor along the way, but comes up short in story. At a paltry 88 minutes, a hefty chunk of screen time is spent setting up the character through expository fictional scenes or explaining precisely why Bruno visits the people and places he does, presuming we'll tolerate the story as more than an excuse for social commentary skits.

Obviously, the meat of Cohen and Charles' film is in the scenarios that are hard to believe they got themselves into, much less out of. On "Da Ali G Show," Cohen was never constrained to a single story. There were no bonds of continuity even within character segments, and it's hard not to wish Cohen had either allowed himself a little more freedom or narrowed his scope for this second outing, which feels closer to the tone of the series, but less like a singular story, because of it.

The plot structure chosen for "Bruno" is also an almost cut-and-paste recreation of the skeleton developed for "Borat." Bruno's assistant's assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), fills the Azamat Bagtov (Ken Davitian) role, and Borat's cultural enlightenment is swapped for Bruno's superficial search for fame, but by comparison, "Borat" feels calculated and focused where "Bruno" is unwieldy and top-heavy.

Still, I find it unlikely that the reason "Bruno" doesn't gel, and the reason it's been so widely unfavorably compared with "Borat" lies only in its gimmicky plot devices, and rather is inherent to the titular character. Maybe it's because Cohen himself is more transparent in the role, and therefore harder to sympathize with, or maybe it's as simple as the character himself. As most fans of "Da Ali G Show" will tell you, Bruno was never as funny as Borat. Borat has a clumsy, well-meaning quality coupled with harmless syntax silliness that makes him an instantly more endearing character than his counterpart. Bruno is more serious, and instigates more severe reactions, which is on one hand more interesting, and on the other, less funny.

I don't mean to harp solely on "Bruno's" problems, because the film is funny. There are scenes that rival and best those in "Borat," but the classic moments are just fewer and farther between. Appearing as an extra on a primetime court drama, pushing parents well beyond the limits of tasteful photography for their infant children, and performing a male on male make-out session in a cage match before a thousand screaming rednecks are among the year's most memorable comic moments.

The shame is that there's always an itch clawing at the back of your mind when "Bruno" starts to drag, a disconnect "Borat" never had that makes you acutely aware of when you're not laughing, which is fortunately infrequently. The film trips over the narrative that should be holding it together, and is a puddle of laughs rather than an (ahem) erect comedic feature. "Bruno" is a spectacle worth seeing on the big screen, but with footage from the theatrical trailer not even making the final cut, it has potential for an even better DVD.


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