The latest incarnation of UK’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s television characters to hit the big screen is the gay Austrian fashionista Brüno. Similar to 2006’s Borat, Brüno once again sees Baron Cohen placing a larger than life character in among an unsuspecting American public where he attempts to generate laughs from playing on their ignorance, prejudices and unawareness that they are being set up. The humour that arises from these situations, when successful, is based on the fact that what Baron Cohen does as Brüno is frequently so shockingly outrageous. The problem is that the parts of the film that are scripted or overly set up don’t work and parts of the film where the unwitting participants don’t fully take the bait also fall flat. However, other moments do provoke the type of uncontrollable laughter that you want from a comedy.
The ‘plot’ of Brüno sees Brüno travel to America to become famous. Along the way he also attempts to broker peace in the Middle East, he adopts an African baby and he decides to become straight. The actual character of Brüno has a limited appeal as there is only so many times an absurdly camp man with an Austrian accent can make jokes about anal sex and pronounce English words in a funny way. The character is so extreme and out of left field that he is never offensive, even if (to steal a quote from one of the film critics interviewed in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood), “There will always be some moron who mistakes satire for documentary”. Not that Brüno is exactly satire either. Jokes are made at the expense of people in the film who have a homophobic reaction to Brüno but Baron Cohen hardly explores the nature of prejudice and how it is ingrained in mainstream society.
The big laughs in Brüno come when Baron Cohen gets the appropriate response after pulling off a particularly incredulous public stunt. The army, a white trash crowd of homophobic cage fight fans and Fundamentalist Christian ‘gay converters’ are all worthy of ridicule and Baron Cohen gets the better of them wonderfully. There are also moments that aren’t laugh out loud funny but wickedly revealing, such as a scene where Brüno meets with a pair of airhead Charity Consultants to discuss what fashionable charity would be best for him to publicly endorse. Another scene where Baron Cohen exposes just how far some stage parents will go to find stardom for their children is just plain disturbing.
The moments in Brüno that don’t work are when the set up never really provokes the desired reaction. Both American Idol host Paula Abdul and Republican Congressman Ron Paul are put in situations where their uncomfortable responses seem perfectly reasonable, which dilutes the gags. The worst scene is when Brüno goes on a tabloid talk show and provokes anger and disbelief from the audience who are understandably horrified by his supposed treatment of an adopted African baby. Baron Cohen isn’t discerning about the people he targets for the butt of his jokes and sometimes he just seems cruel.
Brüno has its lame moments, however, there are also moments in Brüno that are hysterical and you almost feel ashamed at yourself for laughing so hard. A close-up of a dancing penis is certainly not clever, subversive or transgressive, but boy it’s funny.