I'm convinced the phrase “in your face” was created for Sacha Baron Cohen
As an actor and an instigator, he is determined to toss you far out of your comfort zone. As the titular host of Da Ali G Show, his target was uptight white collar (and, generally, just plain white) persons of pomp and politics, confronting them as a young, urban thug. As Borat, the clueless Kazakhstani reporter, he went after Americans (and Brits on the television show that gave the character birth) and their discomfort with foreigners, post-9/11.
His latest cinematic creation (which was also founded on Ali G) is Bruno, in a film of the same name, where he not only addresses the issue of homosexuality, he parades it like a Macy's float. And, boy, does he ever let it all hang out. Whether it all works I'll get to later, but all I can say is that we are better because of such “in your face” antics of entertainers like him.
The mere fearlessness of devoting himself to his character is astounding, as he places Bruno in situations that are bound to provoke, annoy, and perhaps explode. It's like he's lighting a firecracker and holding it his hands as the fuse dwindles.
It would be easy to highlight the bits in which Bruno finds himself in such awkward scenarios, but many are too brief and oftentimes feel too infrequent that I dare not spoil them for you here. While Bruno is certainly more confrontational than his runaway hit Borat, the gags actually land with a softer punch, comedically. One reason is that they are edited in such a short fashion that it is difficult to really contextualize, and therefore appreciate, just what lengths he goes to for the punchline. The other speed bump is the narrative that is used to string these incendiary incidents together, as the throwaway gag between Bruno and his assistant is one that feels like a mere afterthought and does little to help us empathize with the characters.
Bruno, an Austrian fashionista who comes to America in search of fame, will stop at nothing to be famous. Of course, there are plenty of people to help him (at a price), stop him (with threats of violence), or cash in alongside him (at any cost, including the welfare of their own children).
And in scenes where threats of violence escalates, Cohen remains devoted to his character at the risk of his own safety. His sexuality is also proudly on display, which has caused a bit of a kerfuffle among both special interest groups and audiences not quite as compassionate as they thought they were. But that, in my opinion, is all the device that Baron Cohen uses to elicit the best awkward moments of comedy. For if he was any less tame, he would resemble just another watered-down stereotype that could be seen on prime time broadcast television sitcoms.
It is surprising that groups will take issue with the film's frank sexuality, when the very same film features a shocking bit in which stage parents agree to jeopardize their toddlers' welfare in the name of celebrity that has raised nary a whisper of outrage. Bruno seems to go to greater lengths at times for the laughs (perhaps because Baron Cohen was so well known after Borat for such antics), but the payoff is decidedly mixed, only really picking up steam toward the end of the picture.
And yet, while I am lukewarm on my reception to the film, I still cannot praise Baron Cohen highly enough. Whether you delight in his antics or find him an antagonistic pest, we need his comedic stylings in the spotlight. For Baron Cohen is at once shrewd (all those lawsuits after Borat kinda vanished, and you can bet the same will happen here), silly, intelligent, and indomitable. He's the thinking person's Johnny Knoxville, and his conviction to his craft should be celebrated. If nothing else, his films get us to converse long after we've left the theater and use humor as a gateway to issues that are often left to hushed chatter between friends and colleagues.
While Bruno may not reach the same consistent measure of humor output as Borat, the man behind him is someone who should be encouraged to probe deeper and more frequently into all those dark areas that many may find uncomfortable. Sometimes, laughter has to hurt a little.