While watching Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest parody of American narcissism and bigotry, another cinematic prankster came to mind: Lars von Trier. Both Cohen and von Trier delight in mocking the abject intolerance of what they coyly identify as the American temperament. The obvious difference between von Trier’s as yet unfinished “America” trilogy and Cohen’s two acerbic films however is that von Trier does not let his audience into his confidence. Von Trier makes a point of telling us that the joke is on us while Cohen encourages us to laugh with him at his vulgar stunts.
And boy, are they gross. It’s kind of amazing that Brüno finagled its way out of its original NC-17 rating considering the ludicrous amount of nudity and offensive material Cohen toys with.* He deftly transitions from one gross-out gag to the next with commendable aplomb, juggling swingers parties and black babies with the greatest of ease. Cohen doesn’t waste any opportunity to rub in the inadequacy of any given group, from a talk show’s sassy African-American audience to attention-hungry, charity-crazed celebrities (the shaming of Latoya Jackson is glorious, though now removed). He stops at nothing to establish the film’s punchline, namely turning Brüno into the apotheosis of, as Snoop Dogg calls him later in the film, “The White Obama.”
Cohen’s dedication to outlandish misanthropy has thus made him capable of making a better stunt film, one that does not rely on intellectual challenges or infantile inside jokes about being “the greatest filmmaker in the world,” no matter how funny those may be in passing. He’s surpassed von Trier in his ability to make us squirm at a funhouse reflection of our own inadequacies. Every scene where Brüno looks like he’s about to be beaten for his impishly mean-spirited jokes invokes a sick kind of sympathy. These scenes ask us to root for a man that’s laughing at pitiably delusional people, which is almost as mature as kicking a dead puppy and calling it a victory.
As in a scene where he earns copious, breathless laughs from footage of a personal encounter with an aggressive, belt-wielding stripper with a Michelin-sized rack, Cohen makes us laugh at not just at our own prudishness but at our fear of being caught laughing. As Cohen gets whipped into submission, the awkward scene becomes more and more funny thanks to the expectation that eventually Brüno’s unwitting foil will do something really dangerous, taking the joke to a new level of physical violence that Cohen obnoxiously courts with each potshot he takes.
That threat of violence creates such an unyielding bond of complicity with our star jerk that it’s no longer possible to joke, “That ain’t me.” The immediate aggressiveness of Cohen’s comedy is oddly enough what makes it so endearing. It’s fitting then that the film’s most memorable scene is a montage sequence of slowly swinging dicks that ends with a shot of an erection pointing straight out at the audience. There is no escape from Cohen’s hip-thrusting.
* I wish all “provocateurs” had a big studio behind them to grease the MPAA’s palms, too; maybe we’d be able to see Antichrist get a PG-13.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.