Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat, aka Bruno, is hilarious, insightful and cool in an ironic, knowing way... unless you don't get the joke
You can't really protect people from their own ignorance, it seems, and why would you when it's so easy to squeeze belly laughs and millions of dollars from their lack of insight? While it's not acceptable to openly make fun of ethnic minorities, unattractive people or gays, it is quite alright to make fun of the world's dum-dums and while doing so extract humour from the aforementioned ethnic minorities, gays, etcetera.
Or so the logic seems to run in Sacha Baron Cohen's universe.
His latest mockumentary, The Bruno Movie, opening in New Zealand tomorrow, follows the same formula as his 2006 hit Borat, in which a foreigner traverses America and interacts with an incredulous population of dum-dums who don't get the joke and therefore reveal themselves to be a depressingly unsophisticated bunch.
In the $US260 million-grossing Borat (subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) Cohen disguises himself as a xenophobic and misogynistic television presenter from a tiny Kazakh village who comes to America accompanied by his producer and pet chicken. By sharing his outrageous world view with the ordinary people he meets, Borat encourages them to let down their social shields and reveal their own prejudices.
Borat hates Jews (he famously sings a song Throw the Jew Down the Well) and spends much of his American road trip preoccupied with protecting himself from these "devils with horns": when he is unable to buy a gun for protection he gets a bear. Hilarious, until he stays in a B and B run by a sweet elderly Jewish couple who are plainly disturbed when he "escapes" their home in the dark of night.
There are many such moments in Borat: surely filming a trio of drunken frat brothers and inciting them to make offensive comments is like shooting fish in a barrel? And what other reaction would you expect when you drag a Rubenesque African-American prostitute along to dinner at a fading Southern belle's house?
In Bruno, Cohen takes on the character of a gay Austrian fashion reporter who wants to be the "biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler". Ha. Dressed in a riotous collection of hot-pant suits he shocks and horrifies some military men, travellers at a Kansas airport, a talk-show audience and other Americans unused to interacting with openly gay people. Ha ha.
From clips available on YouTube it is evident that there are gems among Cohen's comic bits. It is jaw-droppingly awful how far some stage parents are prepared to go to get their tots a job, for example. In a fake photo-shoot casting Bruno asks a mother if she's okay with her baby being filmed "freestyle" in a car with no car seat and of course she is. "Is your baby okay with dead or dying animals?" he asks a flinty-eyed father. There is a beat and then, "Yes." Fascinating and yet... is it actually funny that these parents are so venal they are prepared to allow their children to be put in danger and exposed to possible animal cruelty for the sake of a paycheck?
There's no question that Cohen uncovers some disturbing truths about contemporary American life. Through his comedy he provides a platform from which to discuss racism, xenophobia, homophobia, narcissism and unholy celebrity worship—and surely that is the role of good satire, even good citizenship?
But his outrageous characters are funny on a base level that appeals to the very jerks the film skewers. Who else walked out of Borat behind a group of swaggering teens who repeated the film's racist one-liners but didn't appear to get the film's wink-wink message? Who else felt a bit smudged by the experience? And who else will rent the Bruno DVD because to not see it is to miss a big pop-culture moment? Sigh.