For the few years since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, what might be called a Judd Apatow sensibility has coated most movie comedies. Push aside the raunch in the friendship films he’s had a hand in — Knocked Up; I Love You, Man; Superbad — and there’s a sweet, optimistic little pink heart beating at the centre.
Sweet is not Sacha Baron Cohen’s thing. No comedian working today is more audacious than Baron Cohen, or more attuned to our not-so-hidden bitterness. Bruno is Baron Cohen’s follow-up to Borat, his hugely popular piece of guerilla performance art cum gross-out comedy. The new film and character lack the newbie shock appeal of Borat, as well as its more overt political propulsion, but Bruno is still hilarious, unbearable and troubling — sometimes all at once, which makes for a dizzying experience. (Several people walked out of the screening I attended, including one man who was screaming as he went.) A joke involving a talking penis spinning like a helicopter leaves the head spinning, too — please, someone, tell me how I feel about that, because I’m laughing too hard to figure it out.
Bruno is a homophobe’s worst nightmare — extreme gay. Forcing him in the face of those who mind is either parody or blackface.
This time around, Baron Cohen’s vessel for his (sometime) social commentary is of course Bruno, a vapid Austrian fashionister who hosts Funkyzeit, "ze biggest fashion TV program in the German-speaking world, not including Germany." After a fiasco during a Paris fashion show — in which he shows up backstage in an all-Velcro suit that attaches to some fancy clothes and people — Bruno is blacklisted from the industry and fired from his job. Without an audience, the man with the dog collars and blackboard-blank eyes has no identity. He’s a YouTube baby, and his singular, clueless quest for fame is as close as the film comes to a plot. Entitlement is Bruno’s recurring gag.
Accompanied by his adoring assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), Bruno travels the world seeking stardom, hitting L.A., the Middle East and Africa, where he picks up a souvenir baby because "Brangelina has one." The documentary-style segments appear to be a hodgepodge of the organic and the contrived. Director Larry Charles and Baron Cohen have refused to reveal too much about their process, but it seems clear that Baron Cohen’s increasing fame means fewer people are prepared to sign up for the humiliation he dishes out. One senses the presence in Bruno of more actors, and the consent of celebrities who are probably hugely relieved to be in on the joke instead of the butt of it.
Yet, in a mirror of Bruno’s own camera-lust, some folks are still happy to oblige. Libertarian U.S. presidential candidate Ron Paul agrees to an interview and ends up in a bedroom with Bruno, who’s hoping to make a career-boosting sex tape. Paul does not bite, metaphorically and otherwise. Instead, he reveals himself not only as homophobic, ranting, "He’s a queer!" but linguistically challenged: "He took a hit on me!"
A Middle Eastern terrorist doesn’t take kindly to Bruno’s observation that "your King Osama looks kind of like a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa Claus." The slightly random sojourn to Lebanon and Israel is where Baron Cohen (who is Jewish) gets to make the most of Bruno’s heritage: "Ish will be the hottest Austrian export since Hitler." But it’s equal-opportunity offence when Bruno struts through an Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem in short shorts and a bow tie. For his troubles, he’s chased down by an angry mob.
Borat didn’t make me feel as worried for Baron Cohen as Bruno did. When, on a camping trip in the Deep South, he raps on the tent door of a redneck hunter naked — well, no one will say that Baron Cohen doesn’t commit to the role. There can be no studio notes reading, "Could you take it a little further, Sacha? Don’t hold back!" But it’s sometimes hard to laugh when Baron Cohen seems one joke away from getting his body parts torn off and stuffed elsewhere. Of course, this is the point. It says something that a supra gay man simply walking — well, strutting in a metallic thong — through most parts of the world is an image of total vulnerability.
Then again, exaggerating the already exaggerated camp of some gay culture — there are enough leather and chains in this movie to provide wardrobe for three Mad Max sequels — could have the effect of simply making gay people look ridiculous. A series of really, really dirty sight gags involving Bruno having sex with his pygmy boyfriend is either a good-natured, what-of-it joke or an invitation to laugh at gay people having sex. I would worry about this film in a frat house where the knee-jerk "ewwww" response may be affirmed, not questioned.
But despite the wobbly worldview, and the fact that Bruno feels thin in patches (despite being less than 90 minutes long), what Baron Cohen does on screen still feels thrilling — huge risks are undertaken because something is at stake. If a few of his targets are sitting ducks, others deserve the pain they bring. A minister who attempts to counsel Brüno into straightness lectures him on how awful women are, but advises him to find one he can "tolerate." Baron Cohen — who’s actually a hell of an actor — does little but sit back blankly and let the man’s unbridled misogyny fly.
The swishing, anal-bleaching, amoral Bruno is a homophobe’s worst nightmare — extreme gay. Forcing him in the face of those who mind is either parody or blackface. Either way, the comedy is in the discomfort, and there’s a lifetime’s worth in Bruno.
Bruno opens July 10.
Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.