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Sacha Baron Cohen's new film Brüno is like his last one, Borat: a squirm-inducing travelogue that finds what it expects to

By Mark Cousins   August 2009

Dame Edna Everidge: the audience was in on the joke


 

The marketing for the new Sacha Baron Cohen film Brüno is as in our face at the moment as the film’s eponymous gay Austrian’s arschenhalle was in Eminem’s at the recent MTV movie awards. The trailer is funny, but the first reviews call the film sour and misanthropic. Is Baron Cohen losing his mojo?

His mojo was firmly in his grasp in his last film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)—or so half the world seemed to think, judging by its massive box office and the appearance of lime-green mankinis at stag weekends. I’ve kept quiet about Borat until now because I like to write about good movies rather than bad, but the surprise in some quarters that the Brüno film might be a bit—what?—aggressive and thick, makes me want to have my say.

In the early 1990s, when I first saw Kazakh films, a world opened up. The Altay mountains in these films were as gorgeous as the Mournes in County Down in which I climbed as a boy. Newly independent, the Kazakhs were trying to work out who they were. I began writing to directors Ermek Shinarbayev and Darzhan Omirbaev, and learned about Kazakhstan’s traditions of hospitality. The country’s literacy rate is 99.5 per cent; it is fourth in the world, ahead of the US and Britain.

Then, in 2006, came the Dame Edna Everidge-influenced Borat, about a Kazakh naïf abroad, which was acclaimed as a smart mockumentary that hilariously skewered antisemitism. I have always found Barry Humphries’s Dame Edna hilarious, but he grew up in Melbourne and knew its mindset. It felt to me that Baron Cohen made an identikit fool—venal, sexist, antisemitic and badly dressed—and gave him the passport of what he thought of as a penumbral, edge of Europe, Islamic, post-Soviet, pre-modern “stan” about which he knew little. The Kazakhstan I had come to know through cinema had become a fantasy of rustic yobbery. I spluttered as others laughed.

Borat had some funny scenes but they curdled in the heat of its hate. Like the action movie 300, it had a wild, almost mythic stupidity. It sucked up to those who, like Baron Cohen, were powerful, white and western. Dame Edna mocked working-class, middle-aged and often fat women (“What lovely material your dress is made of, it’s a wonder you got so much of it”), but they loved how well she knew their world. Humphries’s comic hyper-realism contrasts with Baron Cohen’s generic, top-down satire. Anyone who knew the eastern bloc under communism, or who has travelled in the Islamic world, will have seen people wearing the sort of tracksuit bottoms, white socks, or wide-lapelled jackets that stylish people in Britain never wear and working-class people sometimes do. Borat’s clothes show that Baron Cohen and his collaborators find this funny. This hauteur repels me.

I seldom write about comedy because, first, cinema is only  a small part of its much larger world and, second, there seems to be little in even the best comedies that is inherently cinematic. (Ernst Lubitsch, the German-born director of some of the wittiest Hollywood movies of the 1930s, is the greatest exception to this rule.) But think of your favourite comedies—mine are The Paleface with Bob Hope, Sons of the Desert with Laurel and Hardy, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, M Hulot’s Holiday, the Norwegian documentary Cool and Crazy, Steve Martin’s The Jerk, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, the British classic Withnail and I, and the Hong Kong movie The Drunken Master—and surely they show that there’s a hippocratic oath of humour. These films pledge something like this: in making old or stupid or childish or drunk people look absurd, they admit that the absurdity looks so only from the outside. They know their fools well enough to see that they have an inside too, and that inside is not beyond the pale.

The logical conclusion of the oath may be the self-lacerating comedy of Chris Rock; but my point is not about ethnicity, it is about immersion. Borat is a travelogue that finds what it expects to find: the shrill monotone of white America and the cultural darkness of central Asia. It was admired because Baron Cohen is both game and holds his nerve while in character—but only against the possibility of being found out. With Edna Everidge, all Humphries’s victims were consensual—they knew he was behind the mask. At their queasiest, Borat and Brüno are lightning strikes on people who don’t know they’re being scammed. This in itself is not wrong (Chris Morris’s television japes were justified, I think) but it creates a squirm factor which many mistake for cleverness. And Sacha Baron Cohen dusts himself down and walks away from the worlds he expects to find, having trousered his 15 per cent of net box office.

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