Why the Big Fade for <i>Bruno</i>?

Why the big fade? It's actually not much of a mystery. Once you see the movie, the only mystery is why it wasn't predicted in the first place.
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After a smash opening day, Bruno is fading fast.

Bruno, the follow-up to ace comedy star Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 smash hit Borat, is one of the most hyped movies of the year. It's gotten so much publicity it feels like it's about to come out on DVD. But after a fast start on Friday, July 10th, the mockumentary about a gay Austrian fashionista has been fading badly ever since. This past weekend, it's down 73% from the opening weekend.

Why the big fade? It's actually not much of a mystery.

Once you see the movie, the only mystery is why it wasn't predicted in the first place.

It was striking how quickly Bruno's big fade began. Last weekend, Hollywood columnist/blogger Nikki Finke's headlines proclaimed "Bruno Ist Big!" The predicted opening weekend box office gross in the headline was $50 million domestic. Then it was $40 million. Then, finally, the actual $30 million. But nearly half that opening weekend box office came on the first day.

As Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen interviews Posh Spice and David Beckham for a BBC comedy special. Obviously, they know who he is, and it doesn't hurt the show a bit.

Word of mouth was bad, spreading fast over its opening weekend and continuing. Why?

Bruno is a very crude movie, much more so than most reviewers suggested. It's also not all that funny, which is a bit of problem for a comedy. And there is an air of desperation about the enterprise.

The movie plays like the cable version of one of those porn flicks with a plot. A lot funnier, mind you, I laughed a few dozen times, but on that level. It's not all focused on gay sex, either. There's an extended sequence in which Bruno goes to a heterosexual swingers party, in which several couples apparently have sex while Bruno touches the men, trying to get one guy to look in his eyes while having sex with his female partner. This part of the movie ends with Bruno in a bedroom with a female dominatrix -- a real-life porn starlet, as it turns out -- who whips him when he's slow to strip down and have sex with her.

Borat discusses his life and potential improvements to the United States of America.

A lot's been made of Bruno supposedly being offensive to the gay and lesbian community. Which, of course, it is.

Bruno, now absent the fashionista journalist part of his persona -- more about that in a moment -- is the most stereotypically swishy gay guy imaginable. He gives narcissism a bad name, and is so sexually obsessed that he goes through life apparently seeking every day to recreate the 70s San Francisco bathhouse scene.

But of course much humor plays off of stereotypes. Cohen, a Cambridge graduate in history who is an expert on civil rights movements, can be defended with the argument that he is forcing people to confront the contradictions of their conditioning. Or something like that. Which may be true as far as it goes.

Borat responds to criticism of his views.

Borat was also offensive. To the nation of Kazakhstan, which is nothing like how it was portrayed in the movie. To Russians (the Borat character is actually based on a Russian doctor Cohen met). And I'm sure to other people.

But Bruno is much more crude, and arguable more offensive, than Borat because Cohen has to try a lot harder for effect now. Too many people see him coming now.

On the TV show, a much cleverer Bruno discusses awards show fashion.

I've been a fan of his since he did Da Ali G Show on British television. Then the show came to America on HBO, earning a number of Emmy nominations. Along with Borat, I have the complete TV show on DVD. There are the three core characters: Ali G, a young Brit on the dole who fancies himself a hip hop character, and ends up doing some hysterical interviews with VIPs. Borat, the fictional Kazakh TV journalist. And Bruno, the Austrian fashion journalist.

The Bruno of the movie not only looks different from the TV character, he is a significantly different character. On the TV show, he's pretty smart and clued in to the culture. In the movie, he's a self-obsessed dolt with no talent whatsoever.

That's because he's no longer a fashion journalist.

The fashion folks are all on to Cohen now, so Bruno can no longer do his Funkyzeit TV show. There's one sequence in the movie in which Cohen crashes a fashion show, makes an ass of himself, and is thrown out. After which he is "fired" by his network.

It's too bad. While, it may be true that as my old friend Patricia Duff said many years ago -- "Fashion is Hollywood without the substance" -- it's also true that it's an interesting scene. Are the designs brilliant or nonsense? Or brilliant nonsense?

The TV version of Bruno conducts an interview on cardboard fashion.

In any event, stripped, as it were, of his fashionista side, the Bruno character is reduced to a pathetically talent-free, unremittingly crude, flamingly gay exhibitionist.

And the people he does manage to fool into participating in his interviews and skits -- and much of it seems staged to me -- are easy targets. If you are a white redneck American -- thus unlikely to follow British TV and movies with funny foreign names, or remember what was on HBO (assuming you could afford it) at the beginning of the decade -- you are now the target of Sacha Baron Cohen's pranks.

Opposite the Queen of England, Ali G delivers his Christmas message.

This is why, from Ali G to Borat to Bruno, we see an evolution from the relatively sly and quite clever to the increasingly hyperbolic.

Where previous characters conducted amusingly surrealistic interviews with celebrities and figures of state, Bruno comes off as a stalker or comedic drive-by shooter. With some pretense or another, he does manage to get Republican Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul into a hotel room for an interview. And then starts coming on to him. Paul is kindly at first, you can see the wheels turning for him that he is a room with some poor unfortunate, until Bruno starts stripping down and dancing. Then he storms out.

Bruno has less success with other, bigger names.

When Bruno supposedly gets CBS to conduct a focus group on the pilot for his celebrity show (and let's just say that can't have been real), he keeps hyping an exclusive interview with Harrison Ford. Which in the event turns out to be Ford explosively telling Bruno to "Fuck off!" as he brushes past him leaving a bar or restaurant.

Was Ford acting? Or was he just pissed off at some weirdo stalking him with a camera crew?

An encounter with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also apparently not amused, though not as angry as Ford appeared to be, didn't make it into the movie. Though Bruno makes a point early on, having lost his fashion TV gig, of saying early on that he is coming to Hollywood to be "the biggest gay Austrian movie star since Schwarzenegger."

The well has clearly run dry for these characters, and probably this concept. Which is why this movie turned out to be so crude and seemingly desperate.

But Sacha Baron Cohen is enormously talented. He can easily be this generation's Peter Sellers. He was hysterical as a gay French Formula One driver come to take over NASCAR in Talladega Nights. He can use Ali G, Borat, and Bruno in other ways, and obviously invent other characters.

In a hopefully funnier movie next time out.

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