“Jerry Springer” and pro wrestling notwithstanding, Americans are not crazy about public conflict. That’s one reason our shores are fertile territory for Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy. If he tried his provocations in France or Italy — places where verbal altercation has been raised to an art form — he’d probably be deaf from the response.
But Americans, belligerent as we may be in other contexts, tend to be reluctant to call out weird people doing outrageous things in public places, especially when they’re trailed by a camera crew. Much has been made of the racism and anti-Semitism that Cohen managed to elicit from fresh-faced middle Americans in Borat, but perhaps even more interesting are the dupes who never do or say anything ugly. They just struggle to keep their cool and play along.
And this must be difficult when you’re being verbally or physically assaulted by a strapping Austrian supermodel who’s like a cross between a gay Derek Zoolander and Dieter on “Sprockets.” Brüno is the most cartoonish of the three characters Cohen created on “Da Ali G Show” for Britain’s Channel 4. (The other two are host Ali G — the archetypal white suburban hip-hop wannabe — and the celebrated man from Kazakhstan.) The world of high fashion and celebrities is, shall we say, not that tough to satirize, and that’s what Cohen did with his segments starring Brüno, the host of a fictional TV show called “Funkyzeit.”
In the movie, he broadens his scope to include Hollywood bottom feeders such as stage moms and vacuous publicists; when that gets old, Brüno heads down south to explore the depths of American homophobia. The overarching fictional narrative has the model losing his job and moving to L.A. in search of bona fide celebrity status. The detour to a “gay conversion” ministry in Alabama happens when Brüno realizes that to be a really big movie star — “like Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey or John Travolta” — he needs to be heterosexual.
That sly and straight-faced allusion to three stars plagued by (so far) unsubstantiated gay rumors is typical of Cohen’s comedy: Name a place you shouldn’t go, and he’ll go there. Whether staged or semi-staged, the situations stun — and possibly delight — with their sheer tastelessness. Early in the film, there’s a montage of Brüno and his midget latex-clad boyfriend getting it on in myriad positions that should chase anyone with tender sensibilities from the theater. (It’s up there with the puppet sex montage in Team America: World Police, and just as realistic.) Later on, Brüno asks Paula Abdul to seat herself on the back of a crouching Mexican worker and discuss her commitment to humanitarian causes. She does.
As satirical exposé, Brüno is lightweight, its targets often too obvious. (Stage moms are desperate and redneck hunters in the deep South are homophobic — ya don’t say!) While Borat caught people off guard, Brüno gets a more defensive response — by any standards, he’s a bit scary, like a male Paris Hilton from the homeland of Hitler. (There’s no suggestion that this caricature represents gay men in general, though who knows whether the victims of Cohen’s punking saw it that way?)
It might have been more interesting to watch Brüno try his shtick on sober gay activists or urban hipsters, but those people probably saw through the charade. Hence the film’s focus on good ol’ boys and the kind of Hollywood folk who will do or say anything to get on camera.
The great strength of the movie is Cohen’s ability to stay in character and improvise, giving Brüno a plausibility he perhaps doesn’t deserve. In one scene, the would-be superstar meets two “publicity consultants” who tell him Darfur is all the rage among high-minded celebrities these days. He doesn’t blink at their Valley Girl mispronunciation of Darfur, only asks earnestly, widening his doe eyes, “So what is the next thing? What is Dar-Five?” It’s an exchange you can almost imagine witnessing on one of those sun-washed Bravo reality shows.
All that distinguishes Brüno from the many tepid feature films based on running “Saturday Night Live” characters is ... it’s funny. Chalk that up to Cohen’s talent and the film’s sliver of real-life unpredictability. Never mind how he got that crowd of wrestling fans to cheer way too loudly for the heterosexual lifestyle and wear T-shirts that proclaim they’ll only ever use their anuses for defecation. Sometimes in an absurd, orchestrated situation there is truth, even if this one reveals more about mob mentality than homophobia per se.
And, if you’re not too picky about privacy issues, this succession of calculated absurdities and embarrassments makes for 82 minutes of shameless laughter.