Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bruno - Blu-Ray Review

After re-watching Bruno this past weekend, the same problem began cropping up that had occurred after seeing it theatrically – I was calling it Borat. Not just because they were both based on characters created by Sacha Baron Cohen for Da Ali G Show (they were) and not just because their formats are closely related (they are) but because the memory of the sublimely hysterical Borat looms so large over poor Bruno that it feels like an also-ran before the Universal logo is even off the screen. Interestingly, Cohen’s third character from that show – Ali G himself – had his own feature long before even Borat back in 2002; a misbegotten, unfunny flop called Ali G Indahouse that should have clued Cohen to the fact that traditional narrative storytelling was a mistake for these improvisational characters. It was easy for Borat to follow a film that most people outside the UK had never even heard of, but the decision to launch Bruno’s eponymous feature film behind one of the most surprisingly successful comedies of the decade was a poor one, as borne out by the tepid box office receipts (things got so desperate in Cohen’s native UK that the film was voluntarily edited after its release to secure a more audience-friendly 15 certificate from the BBFC). Universal, hoping that Bruno – debuting on Blu-Ray and DVD on the 17th – will make up some lost financial ground on home video, have packed the film with nearly an hour of deleted and extended scenes with a very interesting feature that appears to be exclusive to the BD release. But the question remains, is there enough bigotry and hatred in Middle America for both Bruno and Borat?

The structure of the film is astonishingly similar to that of Bruno’s Kazakhstani cousin; flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista, having suffered the indignity of a breakup with boyfriend Diesel and the loss of his show, Funkyzeit, treks to America to regain his lost stardom. With adoring assistant Lutz in tow, Bruno travels to the ground zero of meaningless fame – Hollywood – where he interviews a remarkably nonplused Paula Abdul while sitting (literally) on the backs of immigrant laborers, attends a focus group for a celebrity interview show that’s about 5% interview and 40% flailing penis, and getting instructed on hooking up with only the most fashionable charities. Bruno also goes international, attempting to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians (focusing on the terror group, Hummus) before returning to the states – including Washington, D.C., where he attempts to make a celebrity sex tape with Presidential candidate Ron Paul, and finally Texas, where, in the realization that his homosexuality might be what’s holding him back, reinvents himself as the straightest wrestler alive, ‘Straight Dave’.

Right out front, we need to mention that Bruno contains a solid number of hysterical gags; an overnight hunting trip with a stereotypically “Texas” quartet is brilliantly funny (“That is such a Samantha thing to say”) but an early scene where Bruno visits a psychic to get in touch with the spirit of ex-lover and Milli Vanilli frontman Rob Pilatus may possibly have been the hardest that we’ve ever laughed inside a theater. But the nagging concern that many had with this film holds true for us as well; on Cohen’s television show, the Bruno segment was typically the least funny of the three, mostly because spoofing the vapidity of the fashion industry is as soft as targets come. Like the feature, the TV show had its share of funny moments (like his interview of a bunch of frat boys on a beach during spring break who were clueless to Funkyzeit’s gay overtones until the very end) but the mock interview format had already been better covered by Ali G and Borat, and Bruno just felt the tiniest bit stale bringing up the rear (pun unplanned but enjoyed). After the enormous success of Borat, it just feels like Cohen is retreading the same tire, here, and one gets the feeling that even he knows that this will be the last time he’s going to get away with enough material to craft a feature (during the commentary track, Cohen and director Larry Charles mention just how many times Cohen was recognized and a skit had to be abandoned).

It’s also worth noting that Borat’s innocence in regard to the world around him was actually kind of sweet (even while he throws cash at two cockroaches he believes to be the transmogrification of the sweet Jewish couple who own the bed & breakfast he’s staying in) and helped negate the baseline of cruelty that this sort of humor plays off of. As due-paying members of the intelligentsia, we love to mock people that are dumber, poorer, and smellier than ourselves; laughing at a bunch of narrow minded hicks wearing confederate caps and shirts confirming that their anus is used for defecation only makes us feel wonderful – mostly. One could say that we reached a minor breaking point with ambush-based humor while watching Bruno, and began to feel for the mockees rather than simply laughing with the mocker. When Bruno and Lutz are bound together in an array of dildos and sexual appliances and dumped on a city bus in a mid-sized southern town, we actually caught ourselves hoping that one of these people might pick them up and toss them right off into the middle of the street. Our other issue might have more to do with necessity than intent; after Borat, there are simply too many people who will recognize Cohen, leading to far more bits that had been prepared and scripted in advance (what was our reaction to Bruno and Lutz’s fight and breakup outside of a police station supposed to be?) and Bruno simply isn’t as likeable as Borat. Is sounds silly to pit fictional characters against each other in this way, but it might well explain the low box office receipts.

Universal’s Blu-Ray release of Bruno will be making fans of Cohen very happy this week, as it marks one of the few times that Cohen discusses his work out-of-character. He and Charles appear in a PIP window discussing the film and, at certain points, literally pause the film to discuss one aspect or another (we assume that this is the feature that’s exclusive to BD). Both men are quite funny and have great stories about the shoot (like the fact that only time that Cohen was so afraid for his life that he broke camera was while being chased by orthodox Jews) and the frankly disappointing number of people who were already in on the gags. There’s also at least an hour of deleted/extended scenes, including footage of a few of the other would-be sex tape participants (again, some very big Washington names turn up here) some disturbing footage of Bruno at a gun show, and the not-nearly-as-infamous LaToya Jackson sequence that was removed when Michael died (like Paula, she happily sits on the Mexican gardener’s back and takes waaaaay too long to be freaked out by Bruno’s questions (maybe better to get someone less well acquainted with crazy next time). It’s hard to judge the 1080p image; due to the nature of the shoot, many different cameras with different resolution levels were apparently used, but this perfectly matches the look that we saw in theaters earlier this year. We did love the menu layout, featuring German-ish phrasing for each menu option, but working off the familiar Universal BD functionality.