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Before Brüno came Buster, Charlie … In Focus by Richard Crouse FOR METRO CANADA July 10, 2009


Many regard Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand of humour as envelope pushing absurdity that rides the thin line between bad taste and very bad taste.

For instance, in Borat, the titular character says he came to America with “a jar of gypsy tears to protect me from AIDS.” As if that wasn’t squirm inducing enough, he topped it off with jabs at Jews, homosexuals, the American way-of-life and the good people of Kazakhstan.

That movie ruffled more than a few feathers upon release in 2007, and that outrage now seems to be spilling over to the release of his new film.

In Brüno, which hits theatres this weekend, he plays a campy fame-seeking fashionista who wants to be “the biggest Austrian superstar since Adolph Hitler.” Rashad Robinson of GLAAD told the New York Times that while the movie’s satire is “well-meaning,” it’s also “problematic in many places and outright offensive in others.”

As un-politically correct as the results of Cohen’s modus operandi to expose homophobia are — he extracts embarrassing, often racist or downright stupid reactions from people not in on the joke — he is simply following in the cinematic tradition of using irreverent humour to hold a mirror up to society.

Silent comedians Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops and Harold Lloyd infused their work with social commentary, using slapstick to highlight man’s struggle to survive in a swiftly changing society.

Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character, the perpetually down-on-his-luck Tramp, was a metaphor for “the lowest of the lower classes,” a comparison that became even more poignant with the advent of the Depression.

Moving forward, director Sam Wood laced his screwball comedy The Devil and Miss Jones with comments on labour unrest and class distinctions, while Tim Robbins’ mockumentary Bob Roberts was a caustically comic piece on running for Senatorial office and Monty Python members redefined irreverence with their two looks at organized religion, The Meaning of Life and The Life of Brian.

Whether or not Brüno will accomplish the goal shared by Wood and the members of Monty Python — that is to make audiences examine their own fears and prejudices — remains to be seen, but David Kilmnick, CEO of the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth thinks it can’t hurt.

“It’s important in life when you’re dealing with the daily struggles of inequality that you take a second to sit back and laugh,” he says. “That’s always been the medicine for those who’ve been oppressed.”

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