For all the talk about how “shocking” Borat was, its $128 million gross tells a slightly different story. Borat and his unsuspecting victims behaved in ways that were tasteless, ludicrous, and offensive to our sensibilities, but we obviously watched, and we told our friends to watch. It may have offended, but it did so relatively palatably, and we made it an unlikely hit. The Borat phenomenon was propelled by word of mouth. It’s ironic, then, that word of mouth has sunk Brüno, precipitating first an unexpected drop-off in ticket sales from the Friday to Saturday of its opening weekend (some have speculated thanks to Twitter), then a 70% dive in the following weekend’s box-office that sealed its doom. Audiences clearly didn’t like what they were seeing; this time, it seemed, Sacha Baron Cohen had gone too far—and that may be a good thing.
So what, exactly, is Baron Cohen up to? Is he an opportunistic provocateur, exploiting our basest prejudices for the sake of cheap laughs? Or is he a sly satirist who uses cheap laughs to expose the very prejudices he ostensibly exploits? Answering these questions is especially difficult because the writer-performer behind Borat and Brüno usually refuses to address us as Sacha Baron Cohen. Opting instead to publicize and promote his movies in character, transforming their marketing into extended pieces of performance art, Baron Cohen has taken the question of authorial intention out of the public discourse surrounding his films, and in so doing, he has turned the tables on us as an audience. By denying us recourse to a clear statement of purpose, Baron Cohen has left us with the messy task of unpacking his movies’ “meanings” and wondering whether it’s okay for him to make certain jokes and whether it’s proper for us—or others—to laugh at them.