After the success of “Borat,” people wondered what comedian Sacha Baron Cohen could do next. His comedy derived from launching his over-the-top Kazakh character into situations where people weren’t in on the joke, yet a blockbuster hit obviously makes it harder to find willing dupes.
Cohen’s next move was to drag up another of his old TV characters, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista named Bruno. And surprise surprise, with this new film “Bruno,” he’s managed to pull off much the same stunt. Your jaw will drop when he hits on Republican congressman (and Tea Party favorite) Ron Paul in a hotel bedroom, or when he interviews singer Paula Abdul while sitting on the backs of some Mexican immigrants who are acting as human furniture. (And there’s a political statement for you!)
The film follows Bruno, a TV presenter for the Austrian fashion show “Funkyzeit,” who is disgraced and fired from his show after a fashion disaster involving an all-velcro suit. Bruno tells us how “I realized the fashion world was vacuous and empty. So I decided to go to L.A. and become a celebrity.” Badda-boom.
Once in Los Angeles, Bruno acts with the same queeny bitchiness that went over well in the fashion world, but works less well with Hollywood players, let alone the middle-American audience he is pitching his new TV show to. After a disastrous (and hilarious) preview with a focus group, Bruno flails about, trying anything to attain celebrity: A sex tape? A charity? The oh-so-trendy adopted African child? Bringing peace to the Middle East? Becoming straight? Bruno cynically tries them all in his quest for fame, with a little help from a deceased member of Milli Vanilli.
Cohen’s success at duping people here is perhaps even greater than in “Borat”; there are several scenes — where he’s chased down the street by ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, or confronted by an angry mob in a TV talk-show studio — where you practically fear for his life. This reaches its peak when, on his jaunt to “Middle Earth” (the Middle East), Bruno meets with a leader of Hamas and cattily advises him to “lose the beards. Because your King Osama looks like a dirty wizard or homeless Santa.”
And therein lies the point: Cohen’s parody of a flamingly queer celeb-hound is so over-the-top that he’s drawn some flak from the gay community. (Though perhaps they should take another look at Perez Hilton.) And yet this utter stereotype of an ecstasy-popping, latex-wearing, hyper-queen is taken absolutely seriously by all sorts of people, thus revealing their essential homophobia and readiness to believe the worst about gay men. Doubt me? Watch the final scene where a crowd of prowrestling fans practically have a collective aneurysm when two men kiss in the ring.
Like “Family Guy,” “South Park,” and the films of the Farrelly Brothers, “Bruno” belongs to a certain strain of relentlessly anti-PC comedy. And yet — much like those other mischief-makers — it often feels like Cohen is having his cake and eating it too. The endless jokes about sodomy, anal bleaching, and, well, anything butt-related, are about the same as you’d get from any gay-bashing frat-boy comedy.
Cohen does balance this by tweaking the homophobes — the best bit being where he and his partner, chained together in SM gear, waltz through a (real) demonstration of fundamentalist Christians bearing signs that read “God Hates Fags.” Still, irony is always a dangerous precipice to dance upon, and like the anti-Semitism in “Borat,” people who have been on the actual receiving end of hate speech (or attacks) may not find this amusing.
It’s hard to call “Bruno” a great film, and the humor is often sophomoric, but damn, it will make you laugh despite yourself. Even in translation, this had a whole roomful of critics cackling by mid-film, and believe me, that’s no easy feat. Scratch beyond the guy-on-guy jokes, and you will find the most scathing assault imaginable on contemporary celebrity culture.