Mike Myers notably likes to meticulously workshop his characters in live, improvisatory settings, but then retreat to craft a story and script out of material that’s been vetted through laughter. For Sacha Baron Cohen, however, deep-in-character comedy is its own special type of high-wire act, in which often unsuspecting members of the public at large are lured into loosely worked-up scenarios, and then submitted to the warped worldviews, invasions of personal space and/or socio-cultural manglings of his outlandish characters. That was certainly the case with 2006’s wild, subversive Borat, and it remains true — if to a slightly less shocking degree — of Cohen’s new globe-trotting road film Brüno, a very funny mockumentary that yet again wrings laughter from much of what collectively unnerves us.
The film is built around Cohen’s title character (above), the gay, self-absorbed, and more than a bit deluded host of an Austrian TV fashion show. After he causes a scene on a runway, is air-quote fired and dumped, and then barred from other fashion events, Brüno decides that he needs to head to America to achieve the celebrity he so richly covets. With lovestruck second assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) in tow, Brüno hits Los Angeles, improbably lands an agent and, between anal bleaching appointments, manages to score small screen work as an extra on Medium. After a disastrous focus group session for his own show in which the subjects recoil at his dancing, full frontal nudity and talking urethra, Brüno strikes out in attempting to craft a sex tape with Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. It’s only then that Brüno comes to the conclusion that he needs to become famous by “solving a world problem,” and thus turns his attention to brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace. If your head is spinning from the mere comedic potential of these set-ups, all this isn’t even mentioning Brüno’s mock-fellating of one of the members of Milli Vanilli at a seance, Paula Abdul using a Mexican day laborer as a chair, or footage from a real swingers’ party which ends with Brüno getting repeatedly belt-whipped by an angry, plastic-boobed dominatrix.
Owing to the fact that his modus operandi has effectively been outed on a much grander stage than his HBO work on Da Ali G Show ever afforded, Brüno isn’t quite as brilliantly transgressive as Borat, in sum; we more clearly sense the track upon which we’re traveling, in other words. Still, Cohen and director Larry Charles, also his collaborator on the aforementioned film, are masters in picking at the scabs of societal discomfort, whether it’s in the form of African-Americans confronting a gay (and admittedly wildly irresponsible) white man adopting a black baby, or gay conversion advisors being told they have “nice blowjob lips.” These bits are wild and funny, but also striking because they ask us to reflect on exactly why the unwitting participants feel so strongly the way they do, and whether we agree with their views.
While there are laughs to be had at the (good-natured, if raunchily delivered) expense of actual gay couplings, Cohen is mostly interested in using his character’s flamboyance to push buttons about reactions to homosexual men. Some of the movie’s humor is less sophisticated than this mission, though, revolving as it does around the breaking of rules or the breaching of simple interpersonal boundaries that have nothing to do with gay or straight. For all its emphasis on shock, however (and early on, Brüno pushes the envelope with respect to mainstream frames of flapping penis, only further underlining the gulf between studio fare and what independent movies can realistically get away within respect to nudity and sex), the movie also isn’t afraid to indulge in a couple moments of glorious slow burn, as when Brüno goes camping with a trio of good-ol’-boy hunters and remarks that “all the stars in the sky make one think of all the hot guys in the world.” The long uncomfortable silence that follows is hilarious, and speaks volumes.
The film’s two most jaw-dropping and completely anxiety-inducing moments are counterbalancing examples of Brüno‘s mixture of styles. The first, an evisceration of stage parents who will do anything to see their kids succeed as child models, has nothing whatsoever to do with Brüno’s sexuality. Auditioning babies for a photo shoot with O.J., his own adopted child, Brüno keeps upping the ante to see if the moms and dads will object to anything (mock crucifixions, Nazi uniforms, heavy equipment with a lack of safety harnesses, or just “working around lit phosphorus”). Errr… they don’t.
The movie’s amazing penultimate sequence — in this case a stain on the state of Arkansas specifically, but more tellingly and lastingly a statement on the short fuse of mob mentality — finds Cohen portraying the mustachioed ringmaster at “Straight Dave’s Man-Slammin’ Cage-Wrestling Event.” Whipping the crowd into a furor, and leading a chant of “Straight pride!” before the evening’s festivities are set to kick off, things take a turn for the worse when someone shouts an anti-gay slur at Dave. He challenges them to a fight, and then… Well, with Brüno, Cohen has again delivered a comedy with the capacity to both make you think and genuinely recoil. (Universal, R, 82 minutes)