Willa, your question about why I ascribe a "seriousness of purpose" to Bruno 's insanity is a good one. I expect Sacha Baron Cohen to be more than just a shock jock for two reasons: because he has been annointed as a cultural genius by some, and because Baron Cohen himself has said he aims to expose prejudice and apathy . There was a Rolling Stone interview with the real Baron Cohen, out of character, around the time that Borat came out. Neil Strauss, who wrote the piece, calls Borat one of the "greatest comedies of the last decade," and asks Baron Cohen about his motivations in creating the film. Here's what he had to say:
I always had faith in the audience that they would realize that this was a fictitious country and the mere purpose of it was to allow people to bring out their own prejudices ... I think the joke is on people who can believe that the Kazakhstan that I describe can exist. Borat essentially works as a tool. By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism. I remember, when I was in university I studied history, and there was this one major historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw. And his quote was, "The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference." I know it's not very funny being a comedian talking about the Holocaust, but I think it's an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.
There's something else that has been bugging me about Baron Cohen, and it's that he pushes all these boundaries in character, not as himself. I agree with you, Nina- it felt fresher in Borat but now has become stale. Say what you will about Howard Stern and his ilk, but the "characters" they play on air are not in costume with different names. They take more responsibility, ultimately, for their actions. "I've been trying to have my cake and eat it, too-to have my characters be famous yet still live a normal life where I'm not trapped by fame and recognizability," Baron Cohen said in that Rolling Stone interview. Time to take his cake away, I think.
Photograph of a Bruno billboard by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images.