Sasha Baron-Cohen Strikes Again

We went and saw Bruno last night.  Peter liked it much better than I did.  I'm not against it reflexively--some of the viler participants really did seem to deserve what they got.  But overall, it just wasn't that funny.

Partly that's because Baron-Cohen's schtick is wearing a little thin.  Yes, you've proven that if you put people in weird situations, they will usually go along to be polite.  But the sight of normal people awkwardly complying with Cohen's antics seems less amusing than it did five years ago.

But I suspect that the deeper problem is that most Americans just aren't as openly homophobic as he and director Larry Charles were clearly expecting.  Baron-Cohen is funniest when he gets one of two reactions:  genuinely horrible people say genuinely horrible things, or he gets people to go along with his non-horrible, but utterly surreal questions.

But there's little of the former, and almost nothing of the latter, which is what's always charmed me about him.  They are forced to resort to provoking people by being complete jerks:  fondling people inappropriately, showing them "surprise" sexually explicit video, and if all else fails, grabbing their stuff.  And the responses to people being complete jerks are not particularly surprising or interesting, and therefore, not really very funny.

A lot of the jokes, for example, rely on making very, very explicit passes at straight conservative men.  But the men all behave pretty well.  Though one target throws around the word "queer" in a way that made me like him less than I already do, no one says anything nastily homophobic; they just tell "Bruno" to knock it off.  The tension as these scenes build up is occasionally interesting, but the weakness of the denouement means they never pay off.  I haven't laughed so weakly at a movie in years.  Plus there's always the disturbing knowledge that I'd be deeply, deeply offended if any straight man approached me the way he went after those men.

Even the folks carrying the "God hates fags" signs are barely good for a half-hearted smile.  Cohen is reduced to grabbing onto their signs, since they declined to provide him with the verbal fireworks he was expecting.  That's true in much of the movie--he's forced into actual physical slapstick, which he's not very good at, because people don't give him the dialogue he's trying to provoke.  A number of the funniest scenes are, in retrospect, obviously staged.  But while they'd be funny if they actually happened, none of them rise to the standards of fictional comedy.

In the end, it just didn't work at any level. There were a few chuckles along the way, and one genuinely funny and charming moment.  But mostly, it feels like an amateurish college video.  After the trailers, I was expecting a lot more.