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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sacha Baron Cohen plays a gay Austrian fashionista in the guerilla comedy Bruno. Prepare to laugh and gasp.
Good news! The MPAA has substantially decreased its stringency for movies that have adult content. I know this because I just saw Bruno, which has material in it that would've easily earned an NC-17 rating as recently as a couple years ago. Come to think of it, the flick probably should be rated NC-17 now. There are things in this film that I never in a million years imagined I'd see in a mainstream Hollywood motion picture. No, I won't describe them (but only because I want to preserve some of the funniest moments). Bruno is, without a doubt, shocking and offensive, but I would come to expect nothing less from the folks who made Borat. And I'd probably have been disappointed had it not been shocking and offensive.

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen plays Bruno, the gay Austrian fashionista he created for his great HBO series "Da Ali G Show." As with Borat, there's only a small semblance of a story: after his TV program is cancelled, Bruno heads to the United States with the goal of becoming a world famous celebrity. Along the way, he encounters real people who don't know that they're being put on. To say that Bruno represents the worst stereotype possible of a gay person would be inaccurate; he's beyond the worst stereotype possible. That's exactly the point, as Baron Cohen uses the character to draw out and expose homophobia. Much of the way he does this is via the exposure of male genitals and/or the suggestion of unusual sexual acts, both of which make a lot of people very uncomfortable.

In the course of his movie, Bruno tries to seduce an unsuspecting Ron Paul, visits a swingers' party, tests out a vulgar new TV pilot in front of an appalled focus group, and seeks help from a minister whose mission is to convert homosexuals. The grand finale is set at an extreme fighting match where the drunken, bloodthirsty fans get more than they bargained for. Perhaps the showstopper, though, is a sequence in which Bruno seeks to communicate with a dead lover via a psychic. I'm still recovering from that one.

The sequence that really slayed me the most, however, was one in which Bruno takes on a bunch of stage parents who are hoping to get show biz work for their toddlers. When he asks the mother of a 30 lb. child if she'd be willing to either put the kid on a diet or get her a liposuction procedure, the woman agrees. The fact that I am the first-time parent of a 7-month old may explain why the scene made me laugh so hard. One can scarcely believe how some folks play out their own fantasies through their children, no matter the cost.

Are Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles shooting fish in a barrel? Sure. I also won't deny that something about the humor is, at times, borderline mean-spirited. The reason why it works is that they are using the guerilla style of comedy to suss out a larger truth, which is that as liberated as our society may occasionally seem, prejudice and homophobia are more rampant that we might care to admit. Some in the gay community are already criticizing Bruno for the exaggerated ways of its titular character. I'm sympathetic to that, while also acknowledging that it is this very exaggeration that most effectively shines a light on the problem we need so desperately to change. Consider the moment where Bruno comes face-to-face with one of those "Christian" groups who picket the funerals of gay people and harass the mourners. What do they do when he's in their midst? Run away, of course. This is homophobia at its most severe, and Bruno doesn't shy away from ridiculing it.

Sacha Baron Cohen is a marvel. He never breaks character. Never. No matter how bizarre or dangerous the situation around him gets, he refuses to allow a crack in the armor. I think that's why the comedy works. His total commitment is what draws out the demons in people. If they ever for a moment were in on the joke, they'd censor themselves.

Borat is one of my top five comedies of all time, so funny did I find it. Bruno is also very, very funny, although it doesn't quite reach the sublime levels of its ancestor. Some of that is attributable to the fact that the seams show a little more. The scripted sequences are easier to spot, and it's more apparent how some of the scenarios have been set up to get the desired effect. After the massive (and unexpected) box office success of Borat, I think Bruno gives off the faintest whiff of let's try to capture lightning in a bottle again.

But when a movie makes me laugh as hard and as often as this one, I don't care if it's not "perfect." Because of its gleeful, unrepentant raunchiness, Bruno is not for everyone. It makes The Hangover look like Up in comparison. I am recommending it highly for adventurous, thick-skinned moviegoers for two reasons. First, Sacha Baron Cohen's commitment is nothing short of genius. Second, the way the film exposes, tries, convicts, and administers punishment to homophobes - through humor rather than preachiness - had me laughing my ass of for 82 straight minutes.

( 1/2 out of four)

Bruno is rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 22 minutes.

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