When appearing as himself, in interviews and the like, his image is fairly straightforward: a smart, reserved, socially aware individual. These appearances have been so few and so intermittent, however, that most of what can be induced about the guy comes almost solely from his work. To some, this work-to-personal life induction is fallacious, an incorrect correlation demonstrable by the likes of Mel Gibson, Russel Crowe and recently Christian Bale or Billy Bob. And this could very well be true of Cohen, albeit vice versa, if what little is known about him is verifiable.
On-screen, Cohen displays an incessant dedication to his characters that is as frequently admirable as it is repulsive. His capability of creating uniquely colorful personae and staying loyal to their endless sets of quirks and mannerisms displays a high concentration of dramatic talent: literary, thespian, improvisational, comedic, etc. Yet, to satisfy the caricatural nature of these characters, he oftentimes reaches excesses that involve such lewdness and vulgarity that makes one wonder if he’s a tad too dedicated.
In his most recent effort “Brüno,” the amount of verbal and visual references to “wienerschnitzels” and “auschwitzes” is precedented only by fairly candid depictions of the acts they are employed in. Gather from that set of euphemisms and dysphemisms what you will.
All graduates of his “Da Ali G Show,” alongside Kazakh journalist Borat and English gangster Ali G lies Cohen’s third and perhaps most liberal character: the Austrian Brüno, a self-admittedly 19-year-old flamboyantly homosexual fashion journalist – but you probably already knew that. As of early July, each of the listed characters has his own movie, all varying in quality and raunchiness.
The minimal storyline begins with Brüno in his Austrian homeland as he comes to a fashion show dressed up in a Velcro suit and causes a comical ruckus. Disgraced, he is fired from his job and dumped by his romantic subject Diesel (Clifford Bañagale), and decides to move to the U.S. in search of better prospects. Found by his assistant’s assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), together they embark on a journey to make Brüno a superstar. In hopes of obtaining valuable information therefrom, it is here where he meets his interview subjects, some unfortunate bystanders, some blatant homophobes and ignoramuses, and many sheer dumbbells.
It is my estimate that next to none of the interviews are staged. Cohen’s dialogue is likely part improvisation and part prepared script, taking into account many possible combinations of answers from his interviewees.
Semi-experienced director Larry Charles helms this film, but his role is probably minimal, as a mockumentary such as this relies almost exclusively on the writing and the conviction of the characters. In fact, the narrative aspect of Brüno, the one requiring most direction, is a blemish on the overall product that causes to the film to lose Cohen’s trademark pseudo-authentic feel. Charles, who excelled in various behind-the-scenes roles of TV comedies like “Seinfeld”and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” as well as feature films like Bill Maher’s “Religulous” and Cohen’s own “Borat,” handles Brüno’s romantic interplays with his assistant Lutz, for instance, heavy-handedly. Otherwise his imitation of a documentary style and feel is serviceable.
Brüno, just like the show, works best when it’s dialogue-driven. After all, the purpose of most of Cohen’s work thus far has been revelatory, to expose the ignorance, arrogance or irreverence of others as they either try to find common ground (à la Borat) or points of friction (à la Brüno) with Cohen’s exaggerative characters. When the proportion between text and action becomes a disproportion, however, the affair turns into a slapstick with a kind-of reversed sense of antagonism and protagonism, nearly always detrimental to the film and its purpose. This is something that “Brüno” suffers from more so than “Borat,” and as far as the visual or physical gags go, it had me at the Velcro suit.
Readers are likely disconcerted at this point and cannot, for the life of them, figure out whether I liked the movie. Well, all things considered, the answer is an affirmative; when I wasn’t squirming or fidgeting or involving myself in a variety of other tics, whether it be due to the continual obscenity or the terribly conceited plotline, I was rather amused.
The way Cohen handles his meetings with the various figures is consistently humorous and sometimes even inventive. Likely my favorite bits of the film are when Brüno tries to seduce an unsuspecting congressman Ron Paul, or when he fails to differentiate between “Hamas” and “hummus” in a meeting with an Israeli and a Palestinian. Scenes involving an alleged terrorist, a group of macho hunters and a wrestling match are rather surprising in their realism to boot.
Among his other subjects: Paula Abdul and Harrison Ford, in brief but funny encounters, a pair of army guardsmen and two self-proclaimed “homosexual converters.” At one point, Cohen brings an African child to Dallas for “The Richard Bey Show,” claiming he was “traded for an iPod,” causing an utter uproar from the audience.
I do not consider “Brüno” to be a societal exposé, far from it, no one in their right mind would, and such was admittedly never the claim. Otherwise any revelation obtained from the minuscule sampling of the population would be plagued by obvious invalidity like confirmation bias. Nevertheless, as variably funny and inventive entertainment, inferior to “Borat” but following its footsteps, it certainly succeeds to some extent.
Side note: Not convinced of the authenticity of Brüno’s German in the film, and I’m assuming most of it was comprised of loan words. Comparatively, Borat’s “mother-tongue” was not Kazakh but Hebrew.