'Bruno' - Sacha Baron Cohen's Follow-up To His Riotous 'Borat' - Is Just A Hot Mess * 1/2 ( 1 1/2 Stars)

July 10, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

On Late Night With David Letterman, it was riotously funny to watch Sacha Baron Cohen accept accolades for the quarter-billion-dollar success of Borat, then explain how, for his new film, Bruno, he set up a meeting with a West Bank terrorist and staged a potentially deadly cage match in Arkansas. I eagerly await the "making of" documentary on DVD.

In fact, that appearance had everything the feature film lacks: a lucid explanation for the action in the movie and an interlocutor, Letterman, who could provide a sane response to extreme material. If Cohen persists in his current mode of avant-garde comic shock treatment, I suggest he sign up someone like Letterman to be his sidekick.

Through most of Bruno, yesterday's emperor of comedy truly has no clothes. This globe-trotting debacle features Cohen as the gay Austrian fashionista who is always stripping down to his thong, or less. For a portrait of a monomaniac, it's alarmingly random. For an expose of charlatans who range from a psychic to celebrity-charity consultants, it's maddeningly shoddy.

Cohen's brilliant Borat had an aesthetic framework - an intrepid Kazakhstan TV reporter's attempt to make a documentary about the state of the U.S. while maneuvering to meet Pamela Anderson. You knew why the camera was present in every scene; the American citizens caught in its gaze responded realistically.

Borat also had a raison d'etre: Cohen found a devilishly clever way for audiences to process his antihero's political incorrectness. Viewers sympathized with Borat for his lost-boy status as a clueless journalist lost in America and obsessed with Anderson. They grew exasperated at his racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny.

Bruno uses the same mockumentary form without establishing a structure or a purpose. Bruno has no camera crew, only an on-and-off assistant named Lutz. Still, the movie's faux-documentary camera follows Bruno everywhere - it even, apparently, follows his voice, to the office of a Los Angeles agent who calls him at an inopportune intimate moment.

The result might look like home movies, but it doesn't feel like home movies. It's too forced. Beyond that, it's hard to tell what Cohen is going for beyond howls of comic disbelief - the kind of laugh that says, "I can't believe he did that!" Bruno's anything-for-a-gasp brand of smash-and-grab comedy proves that even a "reality" farce can give off flop sweat.

Bruno carries on like a garish one-man float at a San Francisco Gay Pride parade. Cohen wants to play with the idea that all low sexual comedy, straight or gay, is embarrassing. But in this movie, it's not merely embarrassing, it's humiliating - for the performers, the innocent bystanders and, I bet, for many of Cohen's fans. Cohen has envisioned the character of Bruno, a self-described 19-year-old, as a rather worn yet gaudy willow, bending to each trendy breeze while mouthing off about it.

His exaggerated sense of his own randy, hipster attractiveness wears thin as a joke and leaves the character with nowhere to go. Sometimes our wildest comedians don't realize that recurring figures in a sketch do not require major movie treatment. (Mike Myers, are you listening?)

The plot turns are as fragile as a fraying G-string. After being kicked out of a fashion show, Bruno decides that the world of haute couture is too vacuous for him. So he travels to L.A. to become an international celebrity instead. When Bruno creates a pilot for a talk show that features a brutal analysis of D-list celebrity fetuses and a grand finale showcasing his own talking genitalia, a network focus group responds aghast. Who wouldn't? Where's the genius in creating a lousy, offensive show and recording people's revulsion?

The low points in this movie aren't just catastrophic. They're bewildering. The movie just about dies when Bruno spends endless minutes miming oral sex with a dead celebrity as a mortified medium tries not to look at him. The scene in which Bruno tries to seduce Ron Paul for a makeshift porn film is excruciating.

Once Bruno adopts (actually, barters for) an African child, Cohen and director Larry Charles (who also teamed with him on Borat) get off a good bit about parents who'll let their infants do anything for a paycheck and a promise of stardom. An African-American audience at a Houston talk show reacts with proper disgust to Bruno's provocations (such as naming the boy "O.J."). Maybe I found them more gratifying than the focus group because they were responding to a fraud adoption - a real human catastrophe - instead of just a vocalizing penis.

When Bruno decides that the only way to become famous is to become straight, the movie strives in vain to grow a spine. Cohen attempts to debunk homophobes while using the randy, gaudy stereotype of Bruno to bait them. You sometimes fear for Cohen's life, whether Bruno is attending a heterosexual swingers' party or learning how to hunt with macho men. Too bad his foolhardiness racks up so few comedy points. Bruno isn't funny or purposeful enough. During Bruno's talks to clerics who are also gay deprogrammers, movie fans and late-night comedy lovers may think to themselves, "The director did this better with Bill Maher in Religulous."


(Universal Pictures) Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten and Clifford Ba?agale. Directed by Larry Charles. Rated R for crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language. Time: 88 minutes.

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