Rather than outline Bruno for you or chew over too many of its finer formal qualities, I want to address the film in a slightly different fashion.
When we get to December, Bruno might not still be the best comedy of the year, but I’ll eat Werner Herzog’s shoe if it isn’t the best documentary. Sacha Baron Cohen and team here paint a picture of our society that we really shouldn’t be looking away from, and share a point of view that we shouldn’t decry out of hand. Even if you decide, after careful consideration, that this movie isn’t showing an accurate view of the world, you at least owe this same world that careful consideration. Myself, I’ve been left amazed how piercing and truthful this portrayal of people actually is.
Like Borat before it – and before that, nothing else in all of cinema, I believe – this movie is a fiction film that intersects with reality in breathtaking fashion. Between a few cleverly conceived but, ultimately, low-point sequences of full-on, totally dramatized scenes, the film shows us a series of incredible encounters between a fictional flamboyant fashionista and a number of real members of society. Cleverly, the fictional character of Bruno is consistent and understandable, if completely and purposefully unrealistic, while at the same time not ultimately the real focus.
Where a great piece of fiction can refract the human condition through a created character, a model in which we will recognize elements of ourselves, Bruno instead seeks to catalyze real human actions by imposing a character as a stimulus to real individuals, and capturing an image of humanity in their resulting behavior. Through their encounters with the caricature, the ‘real people’ in Bruno are lead to reveal something of themselves, and through the film’s varied selection of situations and people shown, and range of themes explored and provocations made, a fascinating tapestry of hypocrisy, stupidity and bigotry has been woven.
And I refute any claims that the movie’s ‘subjects’ are being tricked into their shameless displays. Sure, a puddle of gas won’t burn if you don’t drop a match in it, but you can’t blame the match for the oil being flammable in the first place. Defending these folk is, at the very least, condoning their volatility.
There’s always going to be some issues raised with a document that is in any way edited, as this film necessarily is. Scenes in Bruno will of course begin and end without showing the entire interaction between the people on display. You might argue even further that a person’s behavior on one day is not necessarily indicative of their behavior at all times. That far, I’ll agree. But I won’t take it as a defense. That’s like a murderer asking to be acquitted because “I haven’t done it before and I won’t do it again.” Doing it once is, frankly, bad enough.
It might sound like I’m claiming Bruno is a scientific experiment, but I know it isn’t one really. What we end up with is a string of anecdotes, not data, and the sample size of folk provoked is truthfully pretty small. I guess one’s reaction to the film as a sample of human behavior will depend, to a large extent, on how representative one assumes the small set of participants offered actually is. I’d like to think it isn’t a representative set at all, but functions instead as no more than warning: these people are likely amongst the worst, don’t be like them. Instead, my personal experience leaves me fearing that the Bruno sample might be rather too representative for comfort.
It should be said that much of the humor in Bruno comes not from laughing with somebody, but rather at somebody. This is an incredibly funny film, but it would be naive to pretend that the laughter flooding the auditorium isn’t completely, and totally, at the expense of real people, living their real lives.
Film isn’t forgiving (sadly?) so no matter how these leopards might change their spots in future, this one grand mistake of theirs will always be frozen in time, ready to be laughed at again and again. Some audience members might find this notion a little uncomfortable, and I know that I did, for a second, when the idea crossed my mind. But I don’t any longer. It isn’t the responsibility of the film to redeem these people – it’s the responsibility of the people themselves, and if they do it, then wonderful, Bruno will be a thing of the past, and they’ll be over it, and I’m sure they will then be able see what they did wrong and how the film did nothing more than call them on it, if at the top of its lungs and from the rooftops. If these people go on carrying a grudge, or wielding lawsuits, then I don’t think I’d be able to believe in their redemption anyway.
As a narrative, Bruno isn’t flawless. Indeed, the film only seems to put its teeth in after a few minutes, and takes them out a few minutes before the end. But these bookends of blah only dull the blade a little, and the main thrust cuts deep.
Instead of laughing at many scenes, you may find yourself thrilled or fearful, and often all three at once. I’ve waited years for the person sitting next to me in the cinema to grab my arm in fear, especially if they didn’t know me and they just couldn’t help it. I always assumed the film to finally create this reaction would be a horror movie, or some super-powerful thriller. As it happens, it was during Bruno that I felt the power of cinema first hand, a claw digging into my arm, and I laughed like a drain while it tightened.
This film comes recommended without any meaningful reservation. And if you think you’re going to be offended then I especially want you to see it. There’s really no point running away from it. Come join the debate.