Sacha Baron Cohen wants to make you cringe. As Brüno, the uber-gay, fame-starved, Austrian fashion whore, Baron Cohen wants you slumped down in your seat, teeth clenched, wondering when the embarrassment is going to end. He's done it before -- with infamous characters Ali G and Borat -- but Brüno feels more like shock for shock's sake. With his previous work, Baron Cohen has already proven he's a lot smarter than this. Article continues below
If you're unfamiliar with Sacha Baron Cohen, think of him as a one-man Candid Camera. Like a possessed Method actor, he disappears into a single-minded character, hurling himself into real-life situations to offend those around him. He's telling us: Here are people at their most shallow, their most obvious, their most hesitant. He's telling them: You dimwit, you've been had! When Baron Cohen's act really works -- as it did with Borat -- there's biting commentary layered into the humor at nearly every turn. With Brüno's journey, the humorist's smarts are too far under the surface.
When we meet Brüno, he's the host of the most popular German-language fashion television show (except in Germany, as he explains). His singular quest is simply to be famous. And, apparently, to have an abundance of gay sex, which Baron Cohen insists on shoving down our throats (ahem), like a test of tolerance. Is it too much now? How about now? Are you thinking about it differently now? I think you could be the happiest homosexual since Peter Allen and still feel the folks behind Brüno are a little too reliant on the gag, taking it a little further than what's funny.
Anyway, much like our man Borat, Brüno goes on a vision quest, hungry for global fame. After failure as a TV show host in the States (yeah, too much on-screen genitalia), Brüno hopes to make it big as a charitable force in the Middle East and Africa. He's chased by angry Hasidic Jews. He attempts to mediate between Jews and Palestinians. He adopts a black baby boy. The film isn't just poking fun at the idiocy of our lives and interests -- it's smacking them with a strap-on.
Pardon the crudeness, but it's appropriate in describing Brüno. The film challenges the idea of "too much," even amid its funniest setups (its original rating was NC-17). If Baron Cohen can't quite make a point with one fake phallus, he'll use three instead. In fact, he does just that when asking a martial arts expert the best ways to fend off a gay man. Not only is it tough to determine whether Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are just stretching (the film's barely over 80 minutes long), but this is shtick that's awfully close to the actor's past shenanigans. As a result, knowledge of Baron Cohen's style works against him.
It's impossible to avoid comparing Brüno and Borat, with their nearly identical storytelling frameworks. A good deal of Borat's success lived in the wide-eyed, hopeful innocence Baron Cohen brings to that character. Yes, he was a painfully ridiculous twist on an immigrant in the U.S., but there was a sweetness in his naďveté. Brüno has a delusional sense of self-importance that mocks our celebrity-focused society, but leaves the character at arm's length.
When the script (developed by Baron Cohen and three others) isn't relying on butt-poking jokes, it earns a handful of big laughs with satiric potential not mined deeply enough. When Brüno meets two PR reps who specialize in charitable work, they come off as the quintessential LA airheads. Baron Cohen, showing off his sharp improvisational form, asks that if Darfur is the "big thing" right now, what will be the "Darfive"? If he and Charles could have hit more conversations like that one, Brüno would be far more entertaining, especially since Charles (Borat, Religulous) knows how to take hold of an uncomfortable interview.
Which leads to the inevitable question about Sacha Baron Cohen's work: How much of this documentary style is authentic? With Borat, the line was so effectively blurred it added to the movie's fun. In Brüno, there's an ample feeling of staginess, of forced funny business that occasionally backfires. Maybe we're the ones being had?