Sacha Baron Cohen’s improvisational prank film “Brüno” is a conceptual mess that’s satisfying as a lowball, turn-your-brain-off snot comedy, but deeply problematic as social commentary. It’s this last aspect, unfortunately, that made 2006’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (and the character’s original TV incarnation) an object of debate. Did Borat’s interactions with prototypical dumb-ass Americans, and his stoking of anti-Semitic tendencies, critique the Arab world’s cultural prejudice and expose the country’s latent prejudice and paranoia, or merely invite smug liberal laughter and an unearned sense of cultural superiority? Was Borat a Rorschach test, or an admittedly mesmerizing comedian’s clever way of indulging stereotypes while pretending to challenge them? And in total, was the movie a stinging critique of a fat, happy nation engaged in two distant wars against countries filled with Borat-types, or just a put-on faking relevance, the movie equivalent of a rubber chicken wrapped in a New York Times Op-Ed section?
The answer to each question was “Both.” Cohen clearly works from the gut — improvisational comics can’t work any other way; his methods expose true and disturbing American tendencies while also confirming his own lack of rigor and inclination to pander — qualities that are quite commonplace among entertainers who (understandably, this being showbiz) are looking for laughs first, insight second. But that’s not to say that “Borat” and Cohen’s originating series, “Da Al G Show,” didn’t have truly audacious moments. My friend Bart Weiss commented that the sequence where Borat leads a sing-along of “Throw the Jew Down the Well’ showcased the country’s latent potential for anti-Semitic thuggishness to terrifying effect; the scene also suggested that while we tend to consider ourselves culturally superior to Arab states that build a fair part of their national character around the image of driving the Jews into the sea, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to light a similarly hateful fuse here.
There are a few similarly unsettling moments in “Brüno,” Cohen’s big-screen reimagining of another one of his sketch characters, a flamboyantly gay and proudly stupid Austrian who will do or say whatever it takes to be famous. More so than “Borat,” which treated the title character’s context-free lust for fame and material/physical satisfaction as just one aspect of his character, “Brüno” is all hedonistic-narcissistic impulse, all the time. He’s almost literally a walking hard-on — a guy who invariably stirs every conversation around to sex or the possibility of sex, and can’t look at another man’s ass, any man’s ass, without feeling Little Brüno stir to life. Like “Borat,” “Brüno” is less a coherent feature film than a succession of bits glued together by a put-on “inspirational” narrative about the title character’s desire to find success and happiness. (An early sequence finds Brüno arriving at a fashion show dressed in all all-Velcro suit, which of course leads to a series of destructive comic set-pieces reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ flailings as Inspector Clouseau, and causes Brüno to be momentarily vilified by the industry whose rituals he disrupted. “For the second time in a century, the world had turned on Austria’s most famous man because he was brave enough to try something new,” he intones in a voiceover.)
Brüno’s increasingly desperate get-famous-quick gambits include getting a Hollywood agent and trying to sell an “A-list” interview show to CBS (the pilot includes gratuitous, bobbling, flopping close-ups of Little Brüno and a brief image of Brüno accosting Harrison Ford on the street and being told to go fuck himself); adopting a black African toddler (which he brings onto “The Richard Bey Show,” where he proceeds to bait the crowd’s predominantly African-American, culturally conservative audience); and heading to the Middle East to broker a peace agreement between Muslims and Jews (he has a song prepared, and he isn’t afraid to sing it). At one point, he grows so frustrated that he decides the only thing standing between himself and fame is his gayness, and enrolls in a homosexuality “curing” clinic in Alabama, where he spends much of his time trying to seduce his counselor.
The casual postmodern qualities of Cohen’s comedy (including the lingering-in-the-background question of which aspects of the comedy are “documentary” and which are scripted) tend to obscure the fact that whether we’re watching his TV sketches or a big-screen blow-up of same, what we’re seeing isn’t terribly different from an early Steve Martin movie or another, similar entry in the picaresque, moron-makes-good subgenre.
There is a point — something along the lines of, “In the modern age, material success, preferably with fame attached, is the most desirable achievement — and we increasingly don’t care how we get it.” Cohen and his director, Larry Charles, spell this out brilliantly about halfway through the movie, when Brüno decides to feature his adopted boy in a Annie Leibovitz-style, glam-controversial fashion spread that would hang the child on a cross and surround him with other kids dressed like Roman centurions. Brüno’s deadpan interview questions to stage moms and dads — asking if they’re okay with showcasing their kids in grotesque and tasteless photo spreads, subjecting them to extremes of heat and cold, putting them in cars without car seats or seat belts, letting them operate heavy machinery and the like, and always being told that it’s fine with them as long as the kid gets the job — hit the rhetorical nail on the head so deftly that the movie has nowhere to go after that.
But it’s a feature, so of course it has to keep going — and that means you have plenty of time to think about the many ways in which Cohen and Charles manage to have their red velvet cake and eat it, too — particularly how they make a big show of teasing America’s ingrained homophobia while simultaneously indulging the panicked straight-man stereotype of gays as lewd, mincing, leather-and-chain-and-assless-chaps-wearing Dionysian fairies who have only one thing on their minds, and that one would be wise not to turn one’s back on. “Borat” was similarly disingenuous and cynical, but because the character had more (admittedly flat) dimensions, and because the film was more scattershot in its choice of targets, it felt somewhat fuller, and less repetitive and essentially cheap. The movie’s final sequence, which finds Bruno and his assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), staging a man-on-man tryst in the ring at an Arkansas Ultimate Fighting Competition, is one of the most unjustifiably self-satisfied set-pieces in shock comedy history. It points up the fact that for all of the film’s subtextual tsk-tsking about (mostly red-state) gay panic, the title character is so obnoxious and often hideous that any reasonable person would be justified in ostracizing him.