What does “Brüno” have to say about the state of the Middle East? Almost nothing.
Almost, but not entirely.
Brüno, in his search for fame across America, pokes fun at various high profile, celebrity attempts to save the world. This takes him to Israel, where the conflict ultimately proves too large, too boring and too complex for him to solve.
Brüno is the creation of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who first appeared on the public radar with Da Ali G Show, the HBO program where Cohen interviewed politicians and the public under the guise of three different characters: the cockney rapper Ali G, the Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev and the homosexual Austrian fashion maven Brüno.
The humor aims both low and high, reveling in the profanity of Baron Cohen’s characters, but also in how those characters manage to expose bigotry and hypocrisy. In a famous sketch, Baron Cohen, as-Borat, sings his original number “Throw the Jew Down the Well” in a Phoenix honky-tonk. The crowd claps, yelps and joins in on the chorus.
Baron Cohen expanded Borat into a feature length movie in 2006, taking the character on a road trip across the country (or at least its Southern states) to alternately make people uncomfortable and see what they would say to a foreign television reporter with a goofy smile, a lot of dumb questions and an absurdly misogynistic and anti-Semitic worldview.
“Brüno” follows a similar structure, but often falls flat because it antagonizes where “Borat” enlightened. (Those adjectives make the two movies seem more sacred and intellectual than they are, at least on the surface; ultimately, both movies are fairly profane, and audiences should be warned about their graphic sexual nature in advance).
Blacklisted from runway shows in his native Austria, Brüno heads for Los Angeles in search of fame. Following a bungled interview with Paula Abdul — in which Brüno uses Mexican groundskeepers as furniture to compensate for the lack of proper chairs — he heads to a ditzy P.R. firm in search of a cause, hoping compassion will launch his career.
Since George Clooney took Darfur, Brüno looks for “Darfive.” He finds it in Israel.
Traveling to the Middle East, Brüno brings together Israeli and Palestinian diplomats for negotiations and debate on the most pressing issues. First among those: why are the Israelis so focused on Hamas. “I mean, isn’t pita bread the real enemy here?” he says.
These scenes don’t poke fun at the Middle East, or even its players. They poke fun at Brüno, who offers impossibly easy solutions to impossibly difficult problems. The Middle East, in the end, is irrelevant. It symbolizes “big global problem,” just as “War and Peace” symbolizes “big novel.” When the Israeli and the Palestinian agree that hummus is not a terrorist organization, but in fact a healthy bean dip, Brüno believes he’s achieved the first step toward broader peace. Then he sings a pop song about peace.
As the Israeli diplomat delves into a monologue on geopolitics and history of the Middle East — a monologue familiar to anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes in a shvitz or a Kiddush lunch — Brüno rolls his eyes. He is bored by the intricacies of his cause.
Is this the mindset of one goofy character, or is Brüno supposed to represent the broader public, attracted to the idea global harmony, but repulsed by the complex obstacles preventing it? The movie doesn’t really care. It looks for laughs in both corners.
And it gets some. When Brüno learns that terrorist groups occasionally snatch people off the street and broadcast footage of the hostages across the world, he sees an opportunity for better exposure. So he heads to the West Bank to interview Ayman Abu Aita, listed in the movie as “terrorist group leader” for the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
“I want the best guys in the business to kidnap me,” Brüno says. “Al-Qaida is so 2001.”
“I don’t like,” Abu Aita replies in the movie.
Aita — who apparently served time in an Israeli prison for his role in the Second Intifada — disputes the encounter in an interview with McClatchy, calling himself a moderate activist and not a terrorist leader. He accuses Baron Cohen of taking liberties with editing to make him look foolish and enraged to comic effect, moments he said never happened.
Either way, the few minutes on screen are fascinating to watch: a Jewish boy disguised in red leather pants and a fake Austrian accent dishing fashion tips to a man accused of killing Israel soldiers. “Can I give you guys a word of advice?” Brüno says. “Lose the beards. Because your King Osama looks like a kind of dirty wizard or a homeless Santa.”
But it’s also fascinating to consider this line from the McClatchy article, “Though Abu Aita was perplexed by Baron Cohen’s sleeveless vest and revealing Brüno attire, he said they spoke for four hours about the political conflict and life in the West Bank.”
They spoke for four hours? At the heart of Baron Cohen’s humor, the line between silliness and intelligence stays blurred, but whichever guarantees a laugh will win.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)