When Sacha Baron Cohen announced his plan to follow the success of Borat with a film about Brüno, Da Ali G Show’s flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter, I confess that I emitted a heavy sigh. For one thing, it seemed unlikely that Cohen could continue to find potential targets who wouldn’t recognize him—a huge problem, since his established characters, Brüno included, have no purpose except to bait the ignorant and unsuspecting. But even if he could pull it off, I wasn’t entirely sure that I could take an hour and a half of Brüno, who to my mind has always been at least as irritating as he is funny. When the Brüno TV sketches didn’t work, people who abused him came across not as virulently homophobic but as understandably jerkophobic; I feared a movie that might inadvertently foster the very anti-gay attitudes it meant to deride.
Which it very well might, but give Cohen credit for chutzpah. Before the first reel is over, Brüno assaults viewers—and given the country’s collective sensibility, “assault” is really the only possible word—with a Benny Hill-style cavalcade of gay sex acts so extreme, however fleetingly seen, that you can only wonder how much Universal paid for the movie’s R rating. From there, it’s a nonstop parade of confrontational homo humor, as our outrageously dressed hero, having been fired from his Austrian TV showcase, Funkyzeit mit Brüno, decides to head for the U.S. in order to become a movie star—or, in his words, “the most famous Austrian since Hitler.” His bid for fame involves the usual celebrity ploys: adopting a baby from an underdeveloped country; undertaking a goodwill mission to someplace suitably war-torn; and attempting to go straight. (After all, he reasons, most big stars, from John Travolta to Kevin Spacey, are solidly hetero.)
Did I laugh? Yeah, quite a bit, and more than I’d expected. At the same time, though, there’s still an oddly uncomfortable edge to Brüno’s comedy, and in the closing moments it finally dawned on me what makes this character crucially different from Borat: He’s set against his targets rather than allied with them. Borat uncovers latent xenophobia by being cheerfully anti-Semitic himself; he’s such a naïve goofball that people willingly overlook and/or echo his most noxious sentiments in the name of friendliness and fellowship. Brüno, by contrast, deliberately goads everyone he comes into contact with, not by being homophobic but by being homosexual. And it’s not just that he’s gay—it’s that he’s obnoxiously gay. Is Republican congressman Ron Paul a bigot because he calls Brüno queer when Brüno starts undressing in the middle of an interview? Are Muslims not supposed to be offended when Brüno strides through their temples and mosques clad in skimpy, bulge-accentuating outfits?
At least we can be fairly certain that the Muslims don’t know who they’re dealing with. Like Borat’s feeble Pamela Anderson scene (and Brüno’s recent Eminem kerfuffle on MTV), much of the material here—certainly everything set in Hollywood—feels as if it may have been staged, which kills a certain amount of the laughter. I’d planned to cite a bit in which Brüno, hosting a talk show without sufficient chairs, has Paula Abdul and La Toya Jackson sit on the backs of Latino workers, but only the portions with Abdul remain in the movie. (Jackson’s appearance has been cut for obvious reasons; Michael was mentioned repeatedly.) But it’s fairly obvious that many of the folks onscreen are playing along, and by the time Brüno has been joined by the likes of Bono and Sting for a musical finale, the film’s sting has largely subsided.