There are 61 laughs, three dildos, one gyrating, talking penis, an anal bleaching and one very pissed-off politician in “Bruno,” which should be enough to make any movie fly. But there is also a pronounced nasty streak to the innumerable provocations staged by the title character that curdles the laughs and wears out the flamboyant Austrian fashionista’s welcome within the picture’s brief 82-minute running time. Undeniably funny, outrageous and boundary-pushing, this further documentation of Sacha Baron Cohen’s sheer nerve will draw an abundant share of “Borat” fans, gross-out seekers and the culturally curious, making for some potent B.O. figures, at least at first. But the content will turn off some (no doubt including some gays), as will the sourness and ill will triggered by the picture’s cumulative misanthropy.
“Borat” scored its sensation not only due to its comedic audacity and Cohen’s sangfroid, but because it convincingly presented ordinary people’s reactions to the star’s myriad incitements. Even though the format is similar here, with Bruno appearing in unlikely places to surprise the unsuspecting, the suspicion persists that most of the sequences were staged, with the majority of the participants in on the gag or even portrayed by actors.
Whatever the actual breakdown of “real” versus elaborately faked scenes under director Larry Charles’ guidance, the result feels far more scripted and narratively driven than did “Borat,” which also benefited from a more unique and cleverly conceived central character. Bruno is a striver, the latest incarnation of a country bumpkin drawn to Hollywood to become a star; the twist is that, unlike many of his predecessors, he’s far from innocent and relentlessly tweaks the establishment’s political correctness with a straight face — the only straight thing about him.
Showing off his leaner and toned body in a series of often comically absurd costumes, the brown-and-blond-coiffed Bruno is introduced as the star of a Euro TV fashion show, “Funkyzeit.” After crashing a runway presentation, however, Bruno is “schwartzlisted,” which frees him to go to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming “the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler.”
The film and the character lay their sexual cards on the table in a dizzying montage of carnal permutations practiced by Bruno and his diminutive Asian boytoy, setting the tone for subsequent bawdiness that pushes the proverbial envelope while suggesting plenty got left in the Avid delete queue. Once in Hollywood, he attempts to launch a celebrity interview show, one on which he proclaims his cultural sensitivity by replacing the furniture with down-on-all-fours Mexicans and having initial guests Paula Abdul and La Toya Jackson sit on them. (In light of Michael Jackson’s death, Universal has opted to remove the footage of La Toya Jackson, which includes a scene of Bruno trying to get the King of Pop’s phone number.) One undoubtedly “real” moment has Bruno stalking Harrison Ford and being angrily told by the star to buzz off, in rather less decorous terms.
Pic takes a fateful turn toward the queasy, from which it never entirely recovers, with a noxious “Gotcha!” sequence in which Ron Paul, the libertarian-minded recent presidential aspirant, is played for a sap. Charitably willing to sit for an interview, the clearly clueless politico is led into a bedroom, upon which Bruno begins stripping as if in preparation for a tryst. When Paul realizes he’s been set up, he storms out and furiously calls his captor a “queer” a couple of times, which will no doubt rankle some of his erstwhile supporters. But his epithets arguably pale in comparison with the venality of his predator’s arachnidan motives.
Absent this interlude, the film might have blithely proceeded on its merry way. As it is, the humor — and it keeps on coming — carries with it an almost immediate sour aftertaste, as Bruno’s intentions, and necessarily Cohen’s along with them, appear far from honorable. As in “Borat,” “Bruno’s” pranks are designed to expose people’s presumed latent prejudices. But while the previous film got away with this high-wire act for most people, “Bruno” is more erratic, partly since one is more aware of the game being rigged but also because Bruno himself comes off as someone the world scarcely needs another example of — a self-absorbed narcissist for whom fame is the only goal. Cohen is critiquing this attitude, of course, but the film comes to share too much of this anything-for-effect mindset.
That said, there are numerous jaw-dropping sequences: Bruno’s deliberately incendiary interviews with Israelis and radical Palestinians (real? Who knows?); his Madonna- and Angelina-inspired adoption of a black African baby and subsequent taunting appearance before an all-black TV studio audience; his attempt to undergo a “gay cure” through counseling and then via macho martial-arts training; a pretty amazing visit to a blue-collar swingers’ party; and, finally, his goading a mangy, beer-swilling Arkansas crowd into an anti-gay frenzy at a cage wrestling extravaganza. Real? Once again, who knows?
Pic is of a noticeably higher technical quality than “Borat,” which may not be an advantage in terms of credibility.