Fans of Borat who have been worried that Sacha Baron Cohen's new film, Bruno, would be a step down in quality can relax. Universal Pictures showed 20 minutes of footage to a small crowd of South By Southwest attendees last night, and the results were explosive. I don't know that I've ever heard an audience so completely lost in loud, helpless paroxysms of laughter. It was the equivalent of doing 20 minutes of cardio. Even if some of what we saw doesn't make it into the final cut (due in theaters July 10), it bodes exceedingly well for the movie's fortunes.
Universal assured us we were the first people anywhere to see these scenes, and they were introduced by Baron Cohen himself ... on video, anyway. Using a highly exaggerated upper-class British accent ("Bruno is a funny old chap"), Baron Cohen filmed segments specifically for SXSW in which he explained what we were about to see in each of the three sequences.
Bruno, as you may know, is a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion designer. The first sequence showed him seeking babies for a photo shoot, interviewing unsuspecting parents about what their toddlers can or cannot do. ("Is your baby comfortable with bees, wasps, and hornets?") If I were a betting man, I'd wager this is the sequence that will produce lawsuits. Some of these stage parents come across as awfully callous, apparently willing to subject their children to all manner of dangerous circumstances. Hilarious and appalling.
Second was a scene from later in the film, when Bruno has adopted an African baby and goes on a Springer-style talk show (filmed in "some ghastly s***hole called Texas," Baron Cohen said in his intro) to discuss the problems of being a single parent. He also shows the results of that photo shoot, with his baby posing as Christ on the cross, among other things. The audience is not pleased. I suspect there may have been a ringer or two in the crowd to make sure certain questions were asked, but 99 percent of the audience thinks Bruno is a real person. Unbelievably funny.
In the third sequence, Bruno has created a new, ultra-straight persona for himself, a redneck named Straight Dave who sponsors an ultimate fighting match. He's as heterosexual -- and homophobic -- as a man can be. He faces an opponent in a steel cage match. I won't spoil anything, but again, the audience -- chanting, beer-bellied, Confederate-flag-waving men, mostly -- is not pleased with the direction things take. Hysterically, chokingly, pants-wettingly funny.
What's most impressive about the footage is how far Baron Cohen is willing to go for the sake of a joke. Remember the naked hotel wrestling scene in Borat? (Of course you do. The images will haunt your sleep for years to come.) Well, that was a Jane Austen novel compared to what happens in Bruno. I note that what we saw didn't depend much on the character of Bruno, either -- you could not like the character and still find the situations funny. If I'm being a studio stooge for promoting this, so be it: What we saw was brilliant. I can't wait to see the rest.
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Here's what happened in those three sequences in greater, spoileriffic detail. Bear in mind some of this might not make the theatrical cut, but it's what they showed us last night.
Baron Cohen explained that in the film, Bruno is eager to become "the biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler," and comes to America after losing his fashion job in his homeland. Following in Madonna's footsteps, he adopts an African baby, then sets up a photo shoot to show off his baby's talents. That's why he's interviewing parents: to find other babies to appear in the photos with his own. He says one will have his baby posed as Jesus on the cross, and he needs two other babies to play the thieves on either side of him. Another proposed photo would have a Holocaust theme. The parents are all OK with this.
When Bruno appears on the talk show, it comes out soon enough that he's gay. He tells the studio audience -- most of whom are African American -- that he loves black men the best. The women in the crowd are particularly distressed by this. Then he brings out his baby, who of course is black, and who has been dressed in leather pants and a belly-baring T-shirt that says "GAYBY."
He shows them the photos they did. One of them has the baby covered in bees. Another shows Bruno in a hot tub with several nude men, and the baby's there, too. I believe the technical term for what the audience does next is "lose its s***." At last, a representative of child protective services (an actress, obviously) appears to remove the baby from Bruno's custody, to the great relief of the studio audience.
It's after his fortunes reverse that Bruno creates his Straight Dave persona -- which means, by the way, that Baron Cohen is playing a character who's playing a character. They set up a new TV series focused on ultimate fighting, with Straight Dave as the host and one of the fighters. He gets the arena audience worked into a lather, eager to see some butt-kicking, and he mentions again that he's the most heterosexual man in the world. Any gays in the audience should leave now, he declares. A man confronts him over this (another actor, of course), and Bruno invites him into the cage to settle it. Their fight soon turns into a kiss, which leads to making out, which leads further and further. The audience turns into a riot scene. It's an extraordinary sight to behold. I truly don't know how Baron Cohen and his crew made it out alive.