‘Brüno’ is no ‘Borat’: Sacha Baron Cohen ramps up the confrontation, not the comedy
After touring America as the nincompoop Kazakh journalist Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen tries again (strains, actually) as Brüno, the flamboyantly attired nincompoop Austrian journalist who comes to America seeking fame by every means necessary. That includes throwing his crotch at the camera and trying to shoot a sex video with an understandably terrified Ron Paul.
Like “Borat,’’ “Brüno’’ dares America to contradict itself, through a combination of documentary encounters and staged happenings in which many of the participants have little idea what’s going on. With luck, shrewd manipulation, and a beguiling performance from Cohen, “Borat’’ discovered a contemptuous jingoistic streak in good people. “Brüno’’ is a more confrontational affair: It wants to expose America’s homophobia, although calling this movie a work of activism is like calling Spam food.
The character began on Cohen’s HBO show. He was a name-dropping fashion journalist, and his vulgar-naif shtick usually worked in segments that were quick and lethally funny. While Cohen has teamed up again with director Larry Charles, who found a great episodic rhythm for the first film, “Brüno’’ feels protracted. When the filmmakers’ luck dries up, they resort to staged fish-in-a-barrel events that make the movie a more desperate, less surprising exercise.
Following the cancellation of his Austrian TV series (he wrecks an actual runway show by the Spanish designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada), Brüno moves to Los Angeles to become the “biggest gay movie star since Arnold Schwarzenegger.’’ Initially, the joke appears to be that he’ll never get work because he’s gay, but telling that joke requires a more subtle strategy than the movie’s semi-improvised format can accommodate.
After filming an ill-fated pilot for a celebrity talk show, Brüno forages for adventure. He meets up with former presidential candidate Paul, who looks like he’s trapped in a room with Pepe Le Pew; aims for peace in the Middle East (or “Middle Earth’’ as Brüno puts it); and adopts an African baby that he pulls from a cardboard box spinning on an airport baggage carousel. Evidently, if he can’t have fame, he’ll take notoriety. This leads to further awkwardness during an appearance on a Jerry Springer-esque talk show (of the filmmakers’ invention) in which the all-black audience begs child services to rescue Brüno’s baby, whom his father has named O.J.
Unto themselves these encounters are amusing provocations. But they say more about Cohen than they do about America - namely that he’s not sure how to make anything larger out of his material. Cohen practices a kind of chemical-reaction comedy. He does his thing, and, hopefully, the person he’s doing it to will respond in kind. Not this time - or at least not consistently enough.
“Borat’’ combined unsuspecting (some would say innocent) people with Cohen’s brand of insult humor and achieved alchemy. In “Brüno,’’ the formula has no greater end. The movie culminates at a cage fighting show that the filmmakers rigged as a celebration of the attendees’ heterosexuality. The crowd turns angry when they realize the rug has been pulled out from underneath them. The gag isn’t terribly insightful and the reaction isn’t entirely unfair.
When the movie gets desperate it hits Alabama and Arkansas, where the fish, to Cohen’s British eyes, probably seem much easier to shoot. In an attempt to go straight, Brüno visits some gay conversion experts, spends a day at Army basic training, and a night hitting on some redneck hunters. These sequences have their moments, but you watch them feeling sorry for the people in them. I’d love to know what the filmmakers told those hunters in order to let a movie crew record this odd European man sabotaging their hunting trip.
Unlike the more completely realized Borat, Brüno isn’t a character. He and his homosexuality are instruments, part thermometer, part joy buzzer. Brüno’s gayness is a steroidal version of the usual assumptions - this might be what some straight people fear gays do. But a more daring movie might have had Brüno try his antics out on actual homosexuals. All his targets are safely straight.
Actually, what’s impressive about “Brüno’’ isn’t the movie at all. Rather’s it’s Cohen’s in-character GQ photo spread, his staged harassment of Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards, and the impossible-to-live-up-to subtitle: “Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt.’’ “Brüno’’ is what “Borat’’ was too well-done to be: a publicity stunt about publicity stunts.