(photo credit: AP)
'What's up?" you ask. For one thing, the new movie, BrÃ¼no. The swishy, semi-fascist fashionista BrÃ¼no is the fictional Austrian TV personality created by the very real British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. In 2006, Baron Cohen broke box office records (and probably a couple of laws) with his movie Borat, about a foreign fictional reporter's adventures in America.
With their microphones in hand and cameramen at their heels, both characters give Baron Cohen the unique ability, in our media-crazed age, to access people and places few "real" people could get close to. The results are hilarious or offensive - sometimes both - depending on your point of view.
As with Borat, the "plot" of BrÃ¼no is nonexistent. BrÃ¼no flies to Hollywood, hoping to become "the most famous Austrian star since Adolph Hitler" and "the biggest gay movie star since [Arnold] Schwarzenegger." Besides being a "take no prisoners" iconoclast and equal opportunity offender, Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish. So, not surprisingly, there are cringe-making "Jewish" gags throughout the new film. It's a carry over from Baron Cohen's old TV program (where the character BrÃ¼no originated and, among other things, liked to rate red-carpet looks as either "in the ghetto" - thumbs up - or "train to Auschwitz" - thumbs down).
At one point in the new movie, the staggeringly tactless BrÃ¼no decides to become a Middle East peacemaker, of all things. But he confuses the words "humous" with "Hamas" in a high-stakes dialogue between real ex-Mossad agent Yossi Alpher and equally authentic Arab leader Ghassan Khatib. Like everyone BrÃ¼no encounters, the two men were baffled by his bizarre behavior.
Some of BrÃ¼no's unfortunate subjects end up making fools of themselves, like the stage mothers and fathers who'll do anything to get their children a part in BrÃ¼no's photo shoot. Would a mother consent to liposuction for her preschooler? BrÃ¼no asks them with a straight face. Will their babies be comfortable working with bees, wasps or hornets? BrÃ¼no suggests to one mother that her 30-pound baby lose 10 pounds within seven days - and she eagerly agrees! When BrÃ¼no tells another mother that her child would be expected to wear a Nazi uniform and push a wheelbarrow carrying a Jewish baby into an oven, the mother calmly responds, "That's fine, as long as he gets the gig." Remember: These are real people, and they're not reading from scripts.
For better or worse, Borat helped make the nation of Kazakhstan a household name (and international punch line). Baron Cohen's new alter ego might not have the same effect for Austria, though in promotional interviews, BrÃ¼no says he wants to "live the Austrian dream of finding a partner, buying a dungeon and starting a family" (a reference to Austrian madman Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and fathered seven children with her). Austria may not be a fascist nation, but right now it is experiencing a growth in nationalistic, anti-immigration movements. BrÃ¼no is probably the last thing it needs.
Which brings us to the eternal question: Forget the Austrians. Is BrÃ¼no good for the Jews?
CONTEXT AND point of view are everything. They're what separate an insightful gag in borderline taste from a tasteless joke that falls flat. Jewish performers like Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David and Sarah Silverman all share offensive-yet-naÃ¯ve stage personae. These seemingly oblivious characters charge through life, offending everyone in their path, but not always intentionally. They escort their audience through edgy routines that reveal a larger point of view within a specific context. Along with Sacha Baron Cohen, Larry David's show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" satirizes the way we overvalue (fake) celebrity and undervalue real history. Meanwhile, Sarah Silverman uses utter absurdity to remind us of the gravity of the Holocaust, not to make fun of it.
By playing a fascist, not to mention a loudly "out" homosexual, Baron Cohen forces audiences to confront their prejudices. His rationale seems to be: If you beat your enemy to the punch line by getting in the first and last word, even if you lose, you still win.
It's a dangerous game, though. How can Baron Cohen be sure that audiences "get" his meta-humor? All in the Family creator Norman Lear was appalled to discover that millions of viewers embraced Archie Bunker, a character he'd meant them to despise. Comedians Chris Rock and David Chappelle dropped certain routines about racial differences when they realized that some audiences liked them for the wrong reasons.
In an interview with Rolling Stone when Borat first came out, Baron Cohen explained the "minstrelsy" he employs in his anarchic humor: "When I was in university, there was this major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw, who said, 'The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.' I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic."
I'm a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, and respect the fact that we could all use a good laugh or two . But I'm also a rabbi, so much of his raunchy humor makes me deeply uncomfortable. It certainly isn't material for a Shabbat sermon.
That said, watching BrÃ¼no declare that fashion is more important than Darfur reminds us there are many real-life, shallow "BrÃ¼nos" out there in the media world - deciding on a whim what the rest of us should wear, watch, read and think - than many of us care to believe. In that respect, BrÃ¼no may serve as a lesson to us all.
The writer's latest book is Shtick Shift: Jewish Humor in the 21st Century (Barricade Books).