Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was a searing, merciless satire of American xenophobia.
In Brüno (a sequel to Borat in approach, star and crew), it’s slightly less riotous and timely for Sacha Baron Cohen to take down notions of American masculinity or homophobia — paper targets so shredded they barely have a bullseye.
But that someone proud to call himself a “second-stage gay conversion specialist” exists in the evangelical world is sickening, as is his reductive, repugnant misogyny.
Where such scenarios become daringly, painfully funny — as they so often were in Borat — is the way in which Cohen calculatedly beats him at his own game.
Made over to look a decade younger and far more Aryan (with a flat iron and highlights, natch), Cohen plays Bruno Gehard (phonetically, that’s “Gay-hard”).
Bruno is the beloved host of Funkyzeit mit Brüno (which translates to Funky Time with Bruno) — a, uh, pull-no-punches expose of the fashion and entertainment industries. With a hit TV show, universal access to celebrities and love with his diminutive boyfriend, Diesel (Clifford Banagale), Brüno can’t lose.
But a disastrous stunt during Milan Fashion Week gets Brüno canned from the show, Diesel leaves and Brüno is, as he would say, “vas aus” (“was out”). Unable to accept defeat, Brüno takes his act to America — more specifically, California, a noticeable diamond rivet in a map of the United States resembling designer jeans.
Followed by his assistant’s assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), who carries an unrequited romantic torch, Brüno makes his way through the ups and downs of American popular culture, sexuality, religion and, just maybe, redemption in a world where everyone’s famous for 15 minutes.
Structured like Borat, Brüno finds Cohen shaking a stick in the cage of Southern religious conversion for reasons related to his sexuality. It’s there — as well as in a scene when stage parents agree to increasingly horrible conditions for their kids — that you can feel the lawyer-approved doing-business-as fronts working overtime.
To be fair, with the success of Borat, it was inevitable that people might recognize him and find out more quickly they are the real butts of the joke. Thus, Brüno is far more overt about its use of actors — or, at the very least, paid personnel (in the case of the “Mexican furniture” scene or a visit to a swingers’ party that has one rather graphic hard-cut edit).
Plus, crashing the set of Medium — an NBC-produced show — feels brazenly synergistic in a film distributed by Universal.
And Brüno, caustically riotous as he is, simply is not as sympathetic as Borat. There was a sweetness and naivete to Borat that can’t sink in for Brüno, so his comedy is crueler and colder to the point where the character’s heartbreak won’t fly.
What Brüno might lack in setup innovation or character conviction, it makes up for with the stones to push things well past the point of comfort or, in some cases, safety.
Brüno likening himself to another Austrian “persecuted for trying something new” gets at the heart of the character’s megalomania. A visit to a real-life terrorist is fraught with ominous danger from the get-go, and that’s before Cohen refers to Osama bin Laden as “a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa Claus.”
Though the film contains nothing like the infamous Borat-Azamat naked-wrestling match, it does feature the most horrifying invocation possible of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. And then there’s the finale — unfortunately spoiled in the press — that does turn violent and, in the process, hilariously spoofs a beloved love theme.
More spangled spectacle than the spontaneous satire of Borat, Brüno is still a successfully uproarious exercise in Cohen slaying U.S. social stratification.