Reteaming the star and director of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles respectively, Brüno peddles the same or a similar shtick in a different persona: a different funny accent, different funny wardrobe, different funny hairdo. The shtick, should you need to be reminded, is to inflict the persona on unsuspecting innocents untipped that it’s a disguise; and the persona on this occasion is a flaming homosexual fashionista (and oxymoronic fascist) out of Austria, dismissed as host of the Funkyzeit TV show after a public faux pas on a Milan catwalk in a Velcro suit, determined now to start afresh in the U.S.: “My plan was to become the biggest gay movie star since Schwarzenegger.” Or, when his plan fizzles, a straight movie star such as, his only cited inspirations, Cruise, Travolta, Spacey: a bruise to his hipness. Or, if not a movie star, then a celebrity interviewer, a celebrity interviewee, a celebrity of no matter what type.
The first and foremost point to be made is that the film is not a mockumentary in the manner of Borat, slightly slicker than it in technique. Most of the time, there is no excuse for a camera to be present, as there was for the Kazakhstan journalist on his journey across America, no excuse, for example, in private consultation with a Cockaholics Anonymous homosexual deprogrammer, or on a hunting expedition with Alabama rednecks, or at a swingers’ orgy, or — on and on. (Very much a secondary and subordinate point would be that the stereotype of the Third World boor was at least somewhat novel, whereas the stereotype of the Euro swish is no more than yellowed comic book.) There is, in consequence, a precipitous drop in opportunities to ensnare unsuspecting innocents and a steep rise in staged scenes with undeclared actors, thus narrowing the gap — not all that wide to begin with — between the guerrilla comedy of Cohen and the mainstream gonzo comedy of a Ferrell, a Stiller.
It seems unassailable that Ron Paul is not a good enough actor to have faked his rebuke when the two-tone-haired Cohen drops his pants, not for the only time putting the cheek in cheeky, during a break in an interview with the former Presidential hopeful, apparently having conflated him with Ru Paul. And the reaction of the crowd at a cage-fighting event in the Deep South, when the anticipated man-to-man smashmouth goes all kissy-face, has an authentic horror, and therefore humor, to it. To be able to believe, or partly believe, or almost believe, in the “reality” of a scene, turns out to be vital to Cohen’s identity and individuality. Without it, the guerrilla is shooting blanks. Not that he isn’t willing, even under the most controlled conditions, to push farther than most beyond the boundaries of taste. Sufficient sample: his visiting a psychic to put himself in contact with the lip-synching “Milli” of Milli Vanilli, a contact that turns “physical” with a mimed kiss and then careens onward to a graphic blow job, butt-lick, shaft-stroke, all the way to what I believe is known in the adult film industry as a “facial.” Admittedly, I myself did not know that the imaginary sex partner (a) was gay or (b) is dead, but that didn’t prevent me from responding to the humor. Something else prevented me. Cohen’s daring seems to be of the sort that elicits embarrassment more than awe or admiration. Embarrassment of course has strong ties to amusement, but calculation and self-awareness sever these.
500 Days of Summer chronicles the relationship of a young couple brought together at the office, a greeting-card company, through their shared taste for the music of the Smiths, among other things: “She likes Magritte and Hopper!” It is a maddeningly mixed experience, beginning (and continuing) with the two leads. A dimply Joseph Gordon-Levitt, often a tortured soul on screen (Mysterious Skin, Brick, The Lookout, etc.), proves himself capable of being a real charmer, a chick-flick dreamboat who believes wholeheartedly in the preordained One-and-Only and who deserves better than his halfhearted object of desire: “There’s no such thing as love. It’s fantasy.” As the latter — Summer is her name, 500 days her shelf life — Zooey Deschanel is by contrast her usual saucer-eyed, spacey, sedated, affectless self, some of which may be ascribed to the character, but most of which must be ascribed to the actress, and all of which tends to signal and soften the bumps in the road, the body blows. “You should know up front,” intones the off-and-on omniscient narrator, “that this is not a love story.”
The main gimmick of the film, the directorial debut of Marc Webb, is not just its nonlinear narrative but its advance identification of each and every scene by its placement on the timeline (Day 488… 1… 299…), something like an Alain Resnais film with a road map and rounded edges. The resulting juxtaposition of discordant moods, often for facile comic effect, is no longer fresh, yet forever ageless. (See, if you ever have the chance, Resnais’s Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, or as an acceptable alternative Claude Berri’s Je Vous Aime.) Proceeding on the plus side, the happy day of playing house in an IKEA showroom is a nice elaboration, minus the poignance, of the lovely scene in The Man with the Golden Arm when the junkie and the B-girl imagine a life together on the sidewalk in front of a kitchen display window. And the split-screen that shows Expectations versus Reality at a reunion party is as clever as can be. Or anyhow as need be.
Much of the movie, on the opposite side of the scales, lapses into the cutesy. (It’s a fine line.) The post-coital dance fantasy in a public park starts out all right but clearly doesn’t know where to stop and certainly ought to have stopped well before the cartoon bluebird. And the foreign-film dream scene, putting the hero onto a subtitled black-and-white movie screen, is a collection of Philistine clichés. The pop songs on the soundtrack, however eclectic the selection, are simply the de rigueur rom-com quota. And the pasty image makes me wonder whether there’s something intrinsic in the film stock, the processing, the printing, or wherever, which prevents the general run of American films from looking as good as, say, French or Japanese or Australian. If this one had looked half as good as The Girl from Monaco, the balance would have tipped decisively to the positive.