Brüno, Larry Charles, 83 mins, (18)
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller, 98 mins, (15)
This sequel is just so 2006, despite its funny moments – and 'Borat' did it so much better
Sunday 12 July 2009
Most people who watch Brüno will snort with laughter at the jokes, gawp in disbelief at the outrageous stunts, marvel at the star's physical comedy prowess and death-defying bravery ... and still leave the cinema disappointed that it wasn't done better.
The reason, simply, is that it was done better, three years ago, when it was called Borat. From its opening minutes onwards, Sacha Baron Cohen's new anthology of taboo-shattering pranks repeats a once-winning formula without the freshness or inspiration. In essence, it's another sequel in a summer that's hardly short of them.
Again, it's a semi-documentary, in which Baron Cohen heroically refuses to break character while he upsets celebrities and members of the public who may or may not be in on the joke. The character, this time, is a flamboyant hybrid of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gok Wan: a camp Austrian TV fashion guru who is determined to make it big in Hollywood.
A satire of showbiz self-absorption appears to be revving up, but then the film retreats from Los Angeles to Jerusalem and then Alabama, pretty much at random, as if Baron Cohen and his team are scrabbling around to find gags wherever they can, and having some difficulty scraping enough material together. (It can't have helped that a sequence referring to Michael Jackson was cut last week). There are still side-splitting moments – as many as there are in any other comedy this year – but without the road-movie structure that kept Borat moving forward, Brüno is more of a scrappy compilation of YouTube clips than a fully realised film.
Besides, some of the repetitions are as glaring as Brüno's shirts. Remember when Borat and his straight man wrestled naked in a hotel? Remember when he appalled his hosts at a house party, and when he destroyed a room with his clumsiness, and when he fell out with a sidekick from his home country before they reunited later on? All those sequences are echoed in Brüno.
Of course, if you haven't seen Borat, you won't be niggled by the feeling that you're being sold second-hand goods. But then, if you haven't seen Borat, you should see it instead of this.
Robin Wright Penn usually disappears into supporting roles as wives and girlfriends, her performances overshadowed by those of her on-off husband, Sean Penn, which could be why so she's so sensational playing a woman in a similar position.
In The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – an indie melodrama written and directed by Rebecca Miller, who also wrote the novel – Wright Penn stars as a woman on the verge of "a very quiet nervous breakdown". Her husband, Alan Arkin, is 30 years older than she is, which wasn't an issue while he was a high-flying New York publisher, and she was dedicated to being a pristine wife and mother – the spiritual sister of Bree from Desperate Housewives. But when the couple's two children fly the nest, Wright Penn and Arkin downsize to a Connecticut "retirement community", where she has little to do except muse over which cheese she had for lunch yesterday, and spy on the neighbours with a pair of binoculars. She has time to reflect on her life, a process which sparks a series of crises in the present day, and a series of flashbacks to her oddball childhood and teenage years (where she's played by Blake Lively).
Wright Penn is excellent. A dead ringer for Julie Christie, she radiates insecurity and frustration even as she wafts through every situation with a sunny smile and a quizzical tilt of the head. She and Arkin aren't the only big names Miller has attracted, either. Winona Ryder plays Wright Penn's best friend, who also lives with a man several decades her senior. Keanu Reeves is the brooding son of a neighbour. Maria Bello is stunning as Wright Penn's volatile, pill-popping mother. And there are cameos from Julianne Moore and Monica Bellucci as two of the other women in her past.
But even with a cast stacked so heavily with Oscar nominees, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee doesn't have anything like the self-importance of Revolutionary Road or American Beauty, both of which it resembles. It's a boldly grown-up, literary film, but it's also airy and elegant, telling its story with a wryly raised eyebrow.
The drawback to this urbane tone is that Wright Penn's troubles aren't all that involving. Watching them is less like experiencing a meltdown, and more like hearing some delicious gossip about it long after the event. But it's still one of this summer's most inviting alternatives to blockbusters about giant robots.
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