It's cinematic dogma: if the plot and characters are weak then the movie will fail. If a movie can't sustain its audience with people they care about and events that interest them then what else can they do?
The answer is all kinds of things. With as much as I bash movies that abandon the fundamentals of good storytelling - the past weeks' "Transformers 2" and "Public Enemies" are textbook examples -- there are plenty of films in numerous genres that succeed without them.
An action or martial arts film that just has exhilarating, dance-like sequences can hardly develop a character and have a ludicrous cliché of a plot. "District B13" and "The Protector" are examples. A horror film can survive on scares and gore alone. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Halloween" come to mind.
And in the same fashion, a comedy with continuous, intense laughs doesn't need plot or characters. There is no better example of this than the "Jackass" films, the second one in particular. Give some shocks and clever, crude humor and a 90 minute film can be sustained.
"Bruno," now joins the company of "Jackass Number Two" as a stunning example of the plot-less, hardcore shock comedy. While the film is funnier than writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 hit "Borat," it fails to create as endearing a character and narrative. The laughs are so frequent and intense, though, that this deficiency fails to really detract that much.
"Bruno" takes the same format as "Borat." It's a mockumentary that blends actors and real life people in an uncomfortable mix. "Borat" featured Cohen as a misogynistic, anti-Semitic, sex-crazed Kazakh journalist who came to America to find out what made the country so great. "Bruno" has Cohen again as a journalist, this time a hyper-gay, sex-crazed, Austrian fashion reporter arriving in America on a mission to become famous.
Bruno tries many different avenues for pursuing his objective. First he tries to make it as an actor. This really doesn't work as he's only able to get jobs as an extra and if there's one thing he can never do it's stay quiet and blend in. Unable to succeed as an actor he instead tries his hand at interviewing celebrities. He's quickly blacklisted once Los Angeles' rich and famous get wise to his game. Despite this disappointment he does have enough material for the first episode of a TV show, which he takes to a focus group. Bruno's hyper-sexual interview show immediately horrifies the group - as well as all of us in the audience.
Then he satirizes the celebrity trends of adopting babies from foreign countries and promoting charitable causes. He goes on a talk show and claims to have swapped an Ipod for an African child. In another sequence he interviews celebrity consultants about what the hip charitable causes are this season. Later he flies to Israel to try and negotiate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Finally Bruno decides that to be famous he'll need to emulate all the other most famous Hollywood men by becoming straight. Thus he begins an odyssey that involves gay conversion therapy, a stint with the National Guard, a hunting excursion, and even a trip to a swinger's party.
The film almost slavishly follows the same format as "Borat." It's pretty much the same movie except with Cohen as a different character pushing different politically-incorrect buttons. And I might pound the film a bit harder with this criticism if it weren't so funny.
Also like "Borat" the film's jokes are laced with smart satire. "Bruno" has targets all across the political spectrum. The shallowness of celebrity culture and the homophobia of certain segments of American culture both come under the gun in a bi-partisan laugh fest.
One of my long-running cinematic preoccupations has always been the MPAA rating system. What content gets what ratings and how do filmmakers tailor their work in order to get a specific rating? "Bruno" takes these issues into a more interesting direction than any film in recent memory.
How this film managed to get an R rating is completely beyond me.
The R-rating is pushed to the breaking point here. The sheer amount of full frontal male nudity and the intensity of the film's sexual jokes is overwhelming at times. (Note that's not a criticism. Funny is funny no matter how shocking the content.) In a post-"Bruno" cinematic culture it now stands to reason that the only way a film can or should get an NC-17 is to feature uncensored, unsimulated sex.
"Bruno" presents Cohen with a challenging problem. He's exhausted his characters from "Da Ali G Show." And more and more people are getting wise to his game. He can't just keep doing these ambush mockumentaries with sex-crazed foreigners that make Americans feel uncomfortable. It's time to move on. What can he do next?
One shouldn't be worried. Cohen has proven himself to be an endlessly-inventive, daring creative talent. He'll certainly come up with something and when he does I'll be first in line.