Once more a stranger in our strange land, satirical stuntman Sacha Baron Cohen finally brings the third of his three known alter egos to the big screen with Brüno. The eponymous Austrian fashion reporter travels to America in order to become a megacelebrity at any cost, and the only thing keeping his flamboyant faux-documentary antics from reaching the level of cultural infamy of Kazakh news reporter Borat Sagdiyev's is Borat himself.
Despite the modest success of Cohen's TV show Da Ali G Show in the States, his 2006 film, Borat, came out of nowhere with its blitz of offensive situations and incisive social commentary, only to be imitated ad nauseam by me, you and everyone we know. Therefore, Brüno, which features Cohen reuniting with director Larry Charles and most of the same writers, follows very much the same narrative through-line, with an eager-to-please assistant (Gustaf Hammarsten) in Borat's grumpy producer's stead and one half of Milli Vanilli standing in for Borat's long-desired Pamela Anderson.
Whether or not Borat-educated viewers are simply keener at spotting the seams, it would appear that many more scenarios in Brüno have been intentionally designed to provoke a reaction and maximize awkwardness. There was a charm to the seemingly aloof Borat that made his subtly anti-American address to an unwitting rodeo crowd fascinating and funny. When a made-over Brüno comes to arrange a hyper-hetero UFC-like event and then turns it on its head, it backfires in a way that seems according to plan.
Staged or not, Cohen still displays a fearlessness and commitment to character unparalleled in the comedy world today, and that's what elevates his stunts from the level of Jackass-type flinch fodder to something considerably more outrageous. Having Paula Abdul discuss her humanitarian efforts while sitting on Mexican landscapers? Telling a known terrorist that Osama bin Laden looks like a homeless Santa? The cleverest cuts would only dilute the giggles and gasps.
There's so much more that I'd rather not ruin, especially as some of the more startling moments seem to be good for a shock and one shock alone. Brüno, like Borat, runs just over 80 minutes, and yet the tight run time seems like a small mercy given the repetitive, choir-preaching angle that Cohen and Charles have to work with. These guys aren't about to win over the hearts and minds of those who don't hesitate to equate homosexuals with terrorists. Neither is straight-faced documentarian Kirby Dick (Outrage), though, and no offense to that filmmaker, but Brüno critiques social hypocrisy with more panache and a lot more laughs.