In the first of the two special events that Universal hosted at South By Southwest tonight, we were shown 20 minutes of "Bruno," which will be released on July 10th. Sacha Baron Cohen, putting on an exaggeratedly posh version of his own English accent, appeared onscreen seated in front of an Avid, and he explained that what we were seeing was still rough, and that not all of the footage we saw would end up in the final cut of the film.
Short non-spoiler version first: amazing. It appears that he has dramatically upped the stakes from "Borat," and I truly expect that this will be THE social conversation of July. If you do not see "Bruno," you will be on the outside of that conversation, and it's one that will encompass thoughts on race, religion, and (of course) sexuality. It is a conversation that is already in progress in much of America, one that was spurred on in California last year with the passing of Proposition 8, one that continues to affect the daily lives of millions of people. Seems like a lot of weight to hang on a wacky comedy, but after the footage we saw tonight, I'm confident that Cohen's more than up to the task.
Okay... now let's talk specifically about what they showed us. Cohen explained a bit of the story. Evidently, Bruno's TV show in Austria is the "biggest German-speaking show on television in every single German-speaking country. Except Germany." So it's a shock to Bruno when he's fired from his job. Distraught, he decides to move to Los Angeles to reinvent himself as "the biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler." After talking to Bono, he decides to go to the Middle East to solve the peace problem there. On the way home, he swings by Africa to adopt a black baby, Madonna-style, and when he gets back to LA, he starts trying to figure out a way to properly demonstrate how much he loves his brand new son.
That leads to the idea to do a photo shoot. And as part of the photo shoot, Bruno needs extras. Specifically, he needs babies. And he's got a vision, so he needs to explain the particulars of what he wants to the parents of the babies that he's looking at for the shoot. That set-up led into the first clip, which was simply a montage of Bruno interviewing parents.
By "simple," of course, I mean "absolutely mind-bogglingly horrifying." I know that show business makes people crazy, and there was a point where my wife and I considered taking our kids to some commercial auditions, but a few meetings with agents changed our minds. It was obvious that we'd be giving up a piece of his childhood, and we weren't willing to do that. We just thought he was damn photogenic. For many parents, there are absolutely no constraints on what they'll allow their children to do in order to work, and the entire sequence made me recoil more than laugh. Bruno asks one woman how much her daughter weighs.
"30 pounds. Approximately," she emphasizes when she sees Bruno react.
"Well, I tell you... we are not looking for the new Scarlett. We are looking for the new Nicole Ritchie. Cheekbones. Do you think your daughter could be persuaded to lose ten pounds or so?"
Without missing a beat, Mom responds, "In seven days? Yeah. Yeah, I think we can do that."
"If she can't drop it, would you consider letting us do a little liposuction to fine-tune things?"
"Sure. I think that would work," she says, as I watch for the lightning bolt to flash out of the sky and hit her.
There's another woman who suggests that her daughter might be "a little scared at first" if dropped from a fourth-story window. One woman is perfectly happy to have her daughter involved in some "amateur science," a phrase which made fellow critic James Rocchi laugh like an asthmatic goose with its leg in a bear trap. For me, though, the winner was the woman who is told that her daughter got the job. Big smile on her face. "Yes, she's going to be dressed as a tiny Nazi soldier, and she'll be pushing another baby, dressed as a tiny Jew, in a wheelbarrow, pushing it right into an oven. How do you feel?"
Again... Mom doesn't even hesitate. "Well, as long as she booked the job."
At that, we cut back to Cohen in the editing room. He says that Bruno decides to go on a talk show, since that's what celebrities do, to talk about life as a single parent. Cohen points out that the show was filmed in "some miserable shithole called Texas," a line that got a huge reaction out of the Alamo crowd, and then we cut to footage from an episode of "The Richard Bey Show."
Ummm... I'm still trying to process this one. Seriously, thinking back on it, it's like I dreamed this footage. It's just too crazy. The audience for the talk show is almost entirely African-American, and when Bruno walks out, he manages to work the crowd pretty well for a few minutes. He talks about how much he loves America and how much he loves African-Americans. He gets a little bit of applause. He talks about how hard it is to raise a child all by himself. He gets a little bit of applause. And then he talks about how all he needs to do is find Mr. Right.
And you can practically hear the needle scratch across the record.
When Bruno confesses that what he really wants is a strong black man he can call his own, the crowd starts to turn on him a bit. At one point, Bruno says the angry black women yelling at him are only mad because "you know I can get any man in this room." With a snap, Bruno flaunts his stuff for a moment to some angry jeers.
One woman asks how he can be a single father if he didn't have a wife, and he explains that he adopted. He decides to go get the baby to introduce him to the audience. And as he went backstage to get the baby, I kept thinking, "No, no, no, they can't do it. They can't bring the baby out. It can't be a real b..."
Oh, shit, sure enough. Real baby. Dressed in a belly shirt that reads "Gayby." And a leather wristband. Oh, lord.
And things just get worse from there. Bruno explains that he "swapped" for the baby, giving the mother an iPod for her troubles. When people scream at him, he defends himself by saying, "It was a really nice iPod, though, from the gift basket at the MTV Europe Music Video Awards." He can tell the audience is really starting to get furious, so he tells them he can prove how much he loves his son. He tells them he spent $40,000 on a photo shoot, and they should look at the photos for themselves.
I think my favorite is the one with Bruno's baby crucified, just like Jesus, with a bunch of babies dressed as Roman centurians milling about below him. But the others are great, too, particularly the "hot tub series" and the one of Bruno in a beekeeper's outfit while the baby is covered in bees.
The clip ends with Child Protective Services coming onto the talk show as the "final guests" and taking the baby (whose name Bruno proudly confides is a strong traditional African name... OJ) away from Bruno, and Bruno freaking out and trying to fight everyone as they drag him off.
We returned to Cohen once more, still at the Avid, and the still image on the screen behind him featured a man with a champagne bottle up his ass and Bruno holding him in some sort of harness. Confronted with that image, it's hard to pay attention to anything being said, but the set-up was pretty simple. Bruno's heartbroken, so he decides to reinvent himself once again, this time as "Straight Dave," the single most heterosexual person in the world.
The final clip begins at the start of an event organized by Bruno's new incarnation. Straight Dave's Man-Slammin' Maxout is a cage fighting match, and the crowd is made up of precisely who you expect would fill a middle-American venue to watch a string of guys kick the living shit out of each other. Much free alcohol and many free t-shirts are distributed to the crowd, and by the time Straight Dave takes the stage, people are positively bloodthirsty. Straight Dave launches into a monologue about how great it is to be at a hetero event for hetero people with "no fags here." He continues his intro until someone yells out "You're a fag!" from the audience. Straight Dave threatens to beat the hell out of whoever said that, and his former assistant (evidently a major character in the film) comes out into the ring. He charges Bruno, and for a moment or two, they actually seem to be fighting, punching and kicking and throwing brutal shots to each other's ribs. And the crowd's totally into it, cheering on Straight Dave, ready to watch him beat the hell out of the gay guy.
And then there's a moment, right in the middle of the fight, when Bruno and his assistant are face to face. Time seems to slow down as they realize what they're doing, why they're doing it. And finally, they lean in and start to kiss. Not just a little, but a hardcore swirling-cameras Hollywood make-out.
And the place... goes... crazy.
I've never seen a crowd react like that. If they could have gotten into that cage, they would have killed those two. People seem to be having actual mental collapses as they watch these two guys start to strip each other's clothes off, kiss each other's bodies. Bruno gets on his knees in front of the underwear-clad assistant, starts kissing his stomach. Chairs and beer and glass and anything not bolted down all get thrown into the ring. People try to climb the fence to get in. It's chaos. It's the Rodeo sequence in "Borat" times 100.
And I get the feeling that's exactly what Cohen was hoping for.
After that last clip, we cut back to Cohen one final time and, big smile on his face, he says, "If you'd like to see the rest of my movie... buy a fucking ticket."
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