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Bruno: Beware Sacha Baron Cohen's Squirm Zone

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 30, 2009 at 5:29AM

In many ways watching Sacha Baron Cohen promote his new movie Bruno, from his GQ layout and MTV Awards Eminem stunt to the series of global premiere stunts, from London to L.A. to Sydney, is more fun than the movie itself. While his performance art gives us a bit of distance, in the movie Larry Charles and Baron Cohen push audiences way past their comfort zones. No matter how sophisticated or tough you think you are--straight, gay, male, female, young, old--it doesn't matter. Something in the movie will make you squirm. (Here's Todd McCarthy.)
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In many ways watching Sacha Baron Cohen promote his new movie Bruno, from his GQ layout and MTV Awards Eminem stunt to the series of global premiere stunts, from London to L.A. to Sydney, is more fun than the movie itself. While his performance art gives us a bit of distance, in the movie Larry Charles and Baron Cohen push audiences way past their comfort zones. No matter how sophisticated or tough you think you are--straight, gay, male, female, young, old--it doesn't matter. Something in the movie will make you squirm. (Here's Todd McCarthy.)

Me? [SPOILER ALERT] I had less trouble with simulated gay sex between Bruno and his diminutive boyfriend, complete with various accessories and black squares covering penetration, than I did with a sequence at a real swingers party that ends with a giant nipple-ringed dominatrix whipping Baron Cohen as Bruno (he flees, naked, into the night). That, Charles told me, was real. And the MPAA granted this movie an R-rating--thanks to various snips and black squares over private parts (shades of Eyes Wide Shut). One Universal exec admitted that those squares had to be made bigger to get the R-rating and definitely made the images more, not less, disturbing.

If ever a movie has earned an NC-17 rating, this is it. Now that I've seen Bruno, which is politically incorrect, button-pushing, brilliant, diabolical, provocative, challenging and often very funny, I understand the reactions I've been getting: not, "you have to see this," "it's hilarious" or "it's going to be huge."

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People tend to talk in subdued, muted terms about how the movie made them feel: uncomfortable. And that sort of word-of-mouth--despite whatever opening Universal manages to muster with its superb global marketing and awareness--will tamp down Bruno's potential box office. Of course, even if we Puritan Americans resist Bruno's crude charms, the rest of the world may embrace them. (Not so sure.)

When Bruno struts a rakish short-shorts Hasidic outfit in Israel and an outraged Jew chases him down the street, you watch with a mix of amusement and horror. For one thing, Baron Cohen demanded a reaction, and got it. He was fearless. He was in danger of starting a riot and had to run for his life (a shopkeeper had to harbor him until he could sneak into one of many getaway cars used during the shoot). The LAT's John Horn quotes Universal's Bruno production notes on how much danger the filmmakers courted while making Bruno. What will the adrenaline junkie do next to top this?

This article is related to: Box Office, Headliners, Genres, comedy


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.