Sacha Baron Cohen as Bruno
July 16, 2009
In 2006, British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen broke box office records (and probably a couple of laws) with his movie Borat, about a fictional foreign reporter’s adventures in America.
Now he’s back with Bruno, the swishy, semi-fascist fashionista, faux Austrian TV personality.
With their microphones in hand and their cameramen at their heels, both characters give Baron Cohen the unique ability, in our media-crazed age, to access people and places few “real” people could get close to. The results are hilarious or offensive — sometimes both, depending on your point of view.
As with Borat, the “plot” of Bruno is non-existent. Bruno flies to Hollywood, hoping to become “the most famous Austrian star since Adolph Hitler” and “the biggest gay movie star since Schwarzenegger.”
Besides being a “take no prisoners” iconoclast and equal opportunity offender, Baron Cohen is Jewish. So not surprising, there are cringe-making “Jewish” gags throughout the new film.
It’s a carryover from his TV program — where the Bruno character originated — and among other things, liked to rate red carpet looks as either “in the ghetto” (thumbs up) or “train to Auschwitz” (thumbs down).
At one point in the new movie, the staggeringly tactless Bruno decides to become a Middle East peacemaker of all things. But he confuses the words “hummus” with “Hamas” in a high-stakes dialogue between a real life ex-Mossad chief and an equally authentic Arab leader. Like everyone Bruno encounters, the two men were baffled by his bizarre behavior. Some of Bruno’s unfortunate subjects end up making fools of themselves, like the stage mothers and fathers who’ll do anything to get their children a part in Bruno’s movie.
Would a mother consent to liposuction for her preschooler, Bruno asks them with a straight face. Will their babies be comfortable working with bees, Komodo dragons, or snakes? What about being “thrown from a building”? Bruno suggests to one mother that her 30-pound baby lose 10 pounds within seven days, and she eagerly agrees!
Remember: these are real people, and they’re not reading from scripts.
For better or worse, Borat helped make the nation of Kazakhstan a household name (and international punch line). Baron Cohen’s new alter ego might not have the same effect on Austria. Austria may not be a fascist nation, but it is currently experiencing a growth in nationalistic, anti-immigration movements. Bruno is probably the last thing it needs right now.
Which brings us to the eternal question:
Forget the Austrians. Is Bruno good for the Jews?
Context and narrative point of view are everything. They’re what separate an insightful gag in borderline taste from a tasteless joke that falls flat.
Jewish performers like Baron Cohen, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman all share offensive-yet-naive stage personas. These seemingly oblivious characters charge through life, offending everyone in their path, but not always intentionally. Their carefully crafted personae escort the audience through edgy routines that reveal a larger point of view within a specific context. David’s show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, satirizes the way we overvalue celebrity and undervalue real history. Meanwhile, Silverman uses utter absurdity to remind us of the gravity of the Holocaust, not to make fun of it.
With his oversized characters, Baron Cohen forces audiences to confront their own prejudices. His rationale seems to be: If you beat your enemy to the punch line by getting in the first and last word, even if you lose, you still win.
It’s a dangerous game, though. How can he be sure audiences “get” his meta-humor? (All in the Family creator Norman Lear was appalled to discover that millions of viewers embraced Archie Bunker, a character he’d meant the audience to despise.)
In an interview with Rolling Stone when Borat first came out, Baron Cohen explained the “minstrelsy” he employs in his anarchic humor:
“When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, ‘The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.’ I know it’s not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.”
It’s telling that so many Jewish comedians (and their audiences) have declared the Holocaust “on limits” for comedy at this particular moment in time, because as its horrors recede into the past, the macabre phenomenon of Holocaust denial is growing, a trend I chronicle in my latest book, Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century.
It goes without saying that this sort of gallows humor offends Holocaust survivors and their families. “Nazi” has become the Jewish “N” word: whether or not it’s an acceptable punch line depends upon who’s using it, and how.
I’m a fan of Sasha Baron Cohen, and respect the fact that we could all use a good laugh or two these days. But I’m also a rabbi; so much of his raunchy humor makes me deeply uncomfortable, too. It certainly isn’t material for a Shabbat sermon.
That said, watching Bruno declare that fashion is more important than Darfur reminds us of the dangers of material excess, at a time when we need to practice and praise restraint. There are more real-life, shallow, dimwitted “Brunos” out there in the media world — deciding on a whim what the rest of us should wear, watch, read, and think — than many of us care to believe. In that respect, Bruno may serve as a lesson to us all.
Simcha Weinstein, an award-winning author, is chair of the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute.