The major reason that Freddy Got Fingered was such a failure had nothing to do with it being offensive or gross. If anything, the juxtaposition of Tom Green looking like a very plain, gee-whiz Canadian as he fellates a cow’s nipples is what makes him funny in the first place (especially on his original MTV show). The shocked bystanders are what he’s after. But he makes sure he doesn’t actually look at them and once he knows he’s being watched he goes about his business with even more vigor, ensuring the viewer will either laugh or be disgusted. Neither is exactly wrong.
But in the case of Freddy Got Fingered, Green was going through his usual animal sexual satisfaction stunts on a set, in front of extras, on a $15 million studio film. Without that impromptu feel, it’s just an attention whore sucking off another mammal. Green never managed to establish a tone, which is why sequences like the one where his friend hurts his leg while skateboarding and the bone is literally exposed don’t work.
First, Green seems concerned for his friend and asks if he should call for a doctor. When the movie cuts back to Green a few shots later, he’s licking the exposed bone. Which is it? Is he an eccentric nice guy? Or is he an out-of-control freak? Either way, the phoniness lets the air out of the shock value. The only big laugh Freddy Got Fingered has is a scene where Green reaches into a woman about to deliver her baby, pulls the infant out, and starts swinging it around his head by the umbilical cord. There’s nothing remotely real in the moment; it just has an unequaled audacity and silliness that makes the whole absurd thing amusing.
It appears that Sacha Baron Cohen, in his new movie Brüno, has forgotten the lesson of Freddy Got Fingered. Far too many scenes look too staged to elicit any real laughter. The distractions ruin the pacing of Brüno, making it feel like pretty slow-going for such a short movie, as scenes have no flow between each other. Baron’s last movie, Borat (which, like Brüno, was another character based on his HBO and UK shows) wasn’t just funny, it was incisive and brilliant — easily the best movie of 2006.
The Borat character is a gangly, misogynistic, anti-Semitic TV host from Kazakhstan who plays off of American ignorance of foreign cultures in a way that allows the random passersby to let their walls of innocence drop so they can indulge their hidden fear and hate. Borat could say something completely idiotic and offensive and those around him would just accept it because he’s an Andy-Kaufman-style funny foreigner with different, backward customs. The response to Borat would be either smiling and uncomfortable politeness (such as the Magnolia Fine Dining Society scene where Borat eventually brings his poop to the table) or an excuse to let out their true feelings (“Of course every picture that we get back from the terrorists or anything else; the Muslims, they look like you. Black hair and a black moustache. So shave that dadgum moustache off, so you’re not so conspicuous, so you look like maybe an Italian. Or somethin’.”).
Brüno, however, is such a limited character, a cartoonishly effeminate and gay fashion show host, that the only thing Cohen can do is to throw the character’s sexuality in people’s faces. At times, Cohen even accidentally slips into his Ali G character while ignorantly interviewing political leaders and asking them inane questions (such as when he confuses Hamas with hummus). That isn’t to suggest that as a movie Brüno isn’t funny, because it certainly is. There are several brilliant sequences of baiting and utilizing American gay panic that really hit the satirical button. The scenes where Brüno attempts to straighten himself out, by turning to religion and becoming an ex-gay, work better than anything else in the movie; especially when Brüno lets people make fools of themselves. (A “second stage gay counselor” goes on a rant about how women are such annoying nags. But because we want to be straight, we have to learn to accept them.) That would be better than his tiresome “I’m gay, now look at my penis” routine.
Much like Freddy Got Fingered or Jackass, the only time that Brüno excels during the clearly staged scenes is when Cohen goes so far over the top into utter absurdity that it no longer matters that it is fake; the moment itself is funny. In Brüno, the obvious signifier between the real and the fake is the switch between grainy video and poor camerawork and HD quality video and static camerawork. I’m not saying that all of the professional footage is fake; it just has a totally different feel than the clearly improvised moments (such as the UFC-style cage match among many angry and confused rednecks). It’s just that there’s a complete disconnect. When Brüno goes to a swingers sex party, the sloppiness of everything and the swingers’ boldness combined with their discomfort is what makes it funny. But a few minutes later, Brüno’s being whipped in an S&M scene that has far too many planned slapstick and fake prop moments that they ruin the illusion.
Cohen originally got famous playing with that illusion in his Da Ali G Show in England. And as he became more popular, his interviews would take place in front of a studio audience. The audience laughed along, giving the impression that the guests also knew what was coming and that Ali G was just a guy playing a character, not an ignorant whigger. Obviously, this diminished the humor. What’s the point if everyone is in on the joke? Cohen’s talents lie in his ability to improvise into and really into trouble, not the boring scatological gags that Brüno falls back on when he can’t think of anything else. The reactions he gets are usually annoyance, rarely an outlet for ignorance, and certainly more about endorsing gay stereotypes by playing right into them rather than exposing anything. (Cohen appears uncomfortable at times when he really has to commit to Brüno’s sexuality.) Cohen is too smart a guy to play it completely safe. As a movie, Brüno is 10% inspiration and 90% ejaculation.