Sacha Baron Cohen is at his best when he's at his most political. Taken together, his three characters from Da Ali G Show constitute a body of work more like the work of a muckraking journalist than that of a comedian, work that reminds audiences of the vital place of comedy in our culture.
Baron Cohen has positioned himself as a man unafraid of speaking truth to power with his balls out, quite literally. Borat's cultural awkwardness brings out our geographical ignorance and prejudice towards those who are "not like us." Ali G's interviews with politicians and dignitaries serve as shocking testaments to how humorless, clueless, and out-of-touch our policy makers and elected officials are.
When we first met Bruno on Da Ali G Show, he seemed to be a combination of the two: his outrageous couture and unabashedly "out" behavior take Borat's act to a more threatening place where people express entrenched homophobic views, while his interviews do for vacuous celebrities and fashionistas what Ali G does for politicians.
This quality endows Bruno with the potential to be Baron Cohen's most provocative statement; unfortunately, however, Bruno limits its target to American homophobia, and while the events of the film do indeed expose prejudice toward homosexuals, they also reveal a fallacy at the heart of Baron Cohen's work: Baron Cohen has some prejudices of his own.
Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles believe that every white person in the South (or perhaps America at large) is a gay-hating redneck Jesus freak. The film serves mainly as an attempt to confirm their preconceived notions. Of course they find what they're looking for, just as anyone who goes looking in reality for evidence of stereotypes will if s/he looks hard enough ... Or if his/her prejudices are strong enough. We don't see anyone in the film contradict this stereotype or surprise Baron Cohen and Charles with his/her tolerance because Baron Cohen and Charles aren't interested in having their assumptions tested. That would complicate their simplistic worldview. Besides, they might add, that kind of stuff is not funny.
But actually, such an incident makes for perhaps the most hilarious moment of Borat. When Borat disrupts a southern woman's dinner party by bringing his feces to her in a plastic bag because he doesn't understand how to use a toilet, we laugh at the uncomfortable breach of etiquette, but we also are amazed by how hard the woman works to maintain her composure. What's funny is not that she's a small-minded bigot, but that she's a big-hearted woman bending over backwards to help make a guest feel welcome in her home. We leave that scene thinking more of that woman than we did at the start, and we still laugh our asses off.
For a film that claims to fight against prejudice, Bruno fights it with a prejudice of its own. Is this revelatory? Is this progressive? Or is it simply trading one kind of blind disdain for another, albeit a kind more politically correct and culturally hip?
Baron Cohen and Charles are, to paraphrase Woody Allen, "bigots for the left," and their comedy serves to reassure people who already agree with them that their dislike for the South, Christianity, and Conservatism are well-founded and not the stuff of prejudice or bigotry but rather fact. One could speculate that Baron Cohen and Charles may think it's impossible to be both liberal and prejudiced, or, to put it more bluntly, liberal and incorrect. Part of their invincibility on-screen comes from their outright fearlessness, but part of it also comes from a supreme sense of superiority.
Both Borat and Bruno reveal Larry Charles' and Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy to be deeply rooted in a cynical contempt for people. No one is above reproach for them; everyone is a total idiot, a total hypocrite, a total bigot, or all of the above. Everyone, that is, except for Baron Cohen and Charles. And while we might find their particular kind of contempt amusing, even hilarious, their intent and methods only differ from Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh with regards to politics, and that's not funny at all.