(originally four stars)
Sacha Baron Cohen is bold, you have to give him that. Most of us couldn't maintain a straight face walking up to people and speaking in a funny accent, but Cohen will actually try to provoke outright anger in his, well, subjects may not be so accurate a term as "victims." His 2006 offering Borat peeled back the curtain on Bush America, revealing bevies of racist, misogynistic buffoons who treated their lack of intelligence as a point of pride. There was a darkness to the film that made it more unbearably funny than programs such as The Office, because this was real.
The innocent pig-headedness of Borat allowed Cohen to tackle any subject, be it a driving lesson, a fancy dinner party or a mad Pentecostal service, but Brüno's options are limited. As a gross exaggeration of a European fashionista, he is meant to arouse the homophobia of those he interviews (poor choice of words?). That forces Cohen to walk a fine line, doing his best to elicit a response without lapsing into a caricature that would offend anyone. For the most part, he succeeds magnificently.
Brüno hits the ground running, depicting its character as the host of the most popular fashion show in any German-speaking nation (except Germany). He attends Milan's Fashion Week wearing a suit of velcro, resulting in disaster and getting the character fired from his TV show. With all of the clubs and fashion outlets in Europe closing their doors to him, Brüno needs a big change. "I realized then that the fashion world was shallow and vacuous," muses Brüno, and so he decides to travel to Hollywood and become a star. There weren't nearly enough laughs in the theater for that line.
Yes, Brüno, like Borat, follows a simple and contrived plot structure, but this adheres to its narrative more closely. Brüno first lands extras work on the show Medium, then attempts to set up a celebrity talk show in which he interviews a reality TV star about whether pregnant celebrities should keep their babies based on ultrasound pictures. In one of the film's most inspired moments, he pitches this show, complete with dance beats, to a horrified focus group. As his situation becomes more desperate, he resorts to adopting an African baby and even trying to get famous by making a sex tape with Congressman Ron Paul.
Borat excelled in its loose structure, as it could go anywhere at any moment, but Brüno actually benefits from staying on some sort of topic. Each scenario lends itself to moments of great humor, but there are few meandering moments. One such drag comes when Brüno, in the process of "converting" to heterosexuality under the belief that only straight men make it in Hollywood, attends a swingers party which not only feels staged but fails to give us any reason for Cohen to be there.
Elsewhere, however, Cohen hits homer after homer. His conversations with two Christian counselors who specialize in homosexual "reformation" bring out the borderline sadistic (not to mention sexist) qualities of both, and that botched interview with Ron Paul ends with with the congressman shouting the word "queer" as he exits in a fury. Brüno even attempts to mediate peace between Israel and Palestine, only to confuse Hamas with hummus, then take credit for improving diplomatic relations when both parties agree on their love of dish. Extras points must be given for his interview with an actual terrorist leader, which Cohen admitted recently in an interview was gladly offered by those in on the joke. Still, the scene has a dark and frightening edge to it.
Earlier in the year I commented on the Jody Hill/Seth Rogen collaboration Observe & Report that despite its uneven material, its final chase through the mall was the most daring sequence I'd seen in years. Brüno tramples it into dust. I shall say nothing on the gag in question other than it occurs in a caged wrestling match and it trumps anything in Borat.
As I watched the film, I couldn't help but wonder how much of it was scripted this time around. Many celebrities are clearly in on the joke (though he manages to fool Paula Abdul in a great scene), while a number of scenes look fabricated even outside those with his assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten). Where I was completely willing to accept the pompous, outspoken fools in Borat, now I wondered if the stage mothers consenting to place their babies in increasingly dangerous scenarios for a photo shoot were real, or if the two PR consultants for charity firms could really know so little about the various causes they suggest to Brüno. But that's the joy of the film, in which reality rubs up against fiction and the line almost totally blurs. While it may not tap into the same shock value as its predecessor, it's got a refreshing focus that Borat lacked, making it the only one I might purchase on DVD.
After seeing the film for a second time, I must confess that my opinion of it fell sharply. While I still found nearly all of the scenes I liked the first time, they didn't have the same effect and the ones that lagged only stood more. The first 10 minutes, in fact, lack any humor at all, both in the scripted segments with the Asian boytoy (which I didn't find funny the first time) or the overplayed bit of Brüno ruining the fashion show, though I do like him coaxing a model into agreeing how hard it is to walk for a living.
As for the stuff that's still somewhat funny: where's the satire? I laugh when Ron Paul is baited into using slurs, but at what point do people stop revealing their true selves to this weird character and start getting it squeezed out of them? Borat worked because, a few exception aside, he generally sat back and just let things happen. His behavior was dopey, not aggressive. Brüno, on the other hand, finds himself in scenarios that cannot benefit from his personality, and so he attempts to force something out of people to make it worth the time.
What is the purpose of that scene with the psychic, other than to make a single person uncomfortable? Couldn't he have really tried to catch the psychic out and prove him a fraud instead? Only the scenes involving redneck hunters and wrestling fans, as well as the disturbing pageant moms and clueless PR consultants strike the same chords as Borat. The rest is often funny, but too cruel for no reason.
My original rating for the film was four stars out of five, but I nearly hated it on a re-watch. I know that you typically have to stick with a rating and just deal with it, but I'm nipping this in the bud now: Brüno is, at best, a mediocre mockumentary whose seams are clearly visible in the post-Borat age. It still boasts the funniest moment of the year, but everything else is too ambling and too often flat.