'Brüno': What really went wrong with Sacha Baron Cohen's shtick
By now it's no secret that "Brüno" turned out to be a here-today, gone-tomorrow fizzle. As my colleague Ben Fritz noted in his box-office reportage, "Brüno's" 73% fall-off in its second weekend was the steepest drop of any movie this year. Despite months of free publicity from hungry media outlets and a pretty shrewd marketing campaign from Universal Pictures, the Sacha Baron Cohen film turned out to be a misfire, largely because nearly all of the people who adored the lovably buffoonish "Borat" had zero interest in the obnoxiously misanthropic and often mean-spirited Brüno, who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are not enough masochistic moviegoers to propel a parody of a gay fashionista into moneymaking material.
There has been all sorts of media speculation that "Brüno's" slide was hastened by the Twitter Effect, with audiences quickly alerting their friends to stay far, far away from a comedy stinker. But I'd argue that something even more fundamental was at work. "Borat" was a breath of fresh air, an artistic breakthrough as well as a wonderfully outrageous comic adventure. But it was a one-off, a fluke, a novelty hit. In fact, what sunk "Brüno" was that, by nature, it was a retread, the work of a comedian trying to capture what turned out to be lightning in a bottle. "Borat" had the effervescence of a great one-night musical performance by a band playing at the height of its powers, while "Bruno" was an attempt to get that performance down on tape, days later in the studio, when the spontaneity had all disappeared.
Universal Pictures paid $42.5 million for the U.S. rights (and eight foreign territories) to "Brüno," spending at least that much -- or more -- to market the film around the world. The studio was betting that "Brüno" was the second installment in a comedy franchise, as if Cohen were the equivalent of Mike Myers playing an Austin Powers-type character, easily marketable and translatable into virtually any language. But instead of getting Austin Powers, Universal ended up with Guru Pitka, the all too unlikable (and unfunny) character Myers played in "The Love Guru," who, like Brüno, insulted all comers and had a somewhat off-putting obsession with penises. It just goes to show that when it comes to comedy characters, audiences turn out to be very cautious shoppers -- they have almost a sixth sense about a product that turns out to be a pale imitation of the genuine article.
Photo of Sacha Baron Cohen as Brüno from Universal Pictures