It would be difficult to recapture the magic of “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s fearlessly offensive satire of American culture, not least because the character is now too famous to fool innocent bystanders the way he used to. So instead of a sequel, Baron Cohen has perpetrated a similar series of pranks using a different character from his HBO series “Da Ali G Show,” an over-the-top, flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista named Brüno.
“Brüno” is a worthy follow-up to “Borat” in the sense that it’s just as outrageously vulgar and just as liable to cause cringing and gasping in the audience. You will see things in this movie that will make you wish you’d been born sightless. You will probably also laugh until tears render you blind anyway. All of which is fine, but I can’t shake the feeling that “Brüno” is a couple pegs below “Borat” in overall genius. Funny, yes. Astute in its satire, not as much.
We are introduced to Brüno — who’s so flamboyantly, over-the-top gay he almost sets off sprinkler systems — as the host of “Funkyzeit,” Austrian TV’s most important style show and a forum for Brüno to demonstrate his cheerful shallowness. (The “In or Out” segment declares autism to be “in,” while chlamydia is “out.”) But after causing a disaster at a fashion show — a real one that Baron Cohen, in character, really did disrupt — Brüno is fired. In his own words, “For the second time in a century, the world had turned on Austria’s greatest man.”
Brüno’s goal now is to become rich and famous, which means coming to Hollywood and going into show business. That is the overarching theme in the film: Brüno will do whatever it takes to get famous, whether through acting, philanthropy, adopting an African baby, making a sex tape, getting kidnapped by terrorists, or some other method not yet discovered. Through it all he is accompanied by his devoted assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), who fills the same thankless role as the portly, dark-eyebrowed Azamat (Ken Davitian) in “Borat.”
A lot of the pre-written material (Baron Cohen and three others are credited for the screenplay) is extremely funny — I love the Germanized versions of Hollywood celebrities’ names — and often spot-on in its parody of vapid American TV content. Brüno’s obscene pilot episode for a TV style show is hilarious, more so because we view it through the eyes of an unwitting focus group whose members don’t know it’s all joke.
And that’s where the real meat is, of course, those improvised scenes with regular civilians who are unaware that Brüno is a character. (If nothing else, Baron Cohen is alarmingly adept at transforming himself physically. You could put Borat, Brüno, and Baron Cohen next to each other and still need several seconds to realize they’re all the same person.) At their best, these scenes give people enough rope to hang themselves, as in the horrifying sequence where parents eager to turn their toddlers into cash cows indicate their willingness to put their children into all sorts of dangerous situations. That desire for fame and fortune is what “Brüno” is really satirizing.
Still very funny but quite a bit less effective from a satiric standpoint are the scenes where Brüno behaves outrageously and bystanders are outraged. Brüno, who has a thing for black guys, adopts a black baby and then appears on a TV talk show with a mostly black studio audience to talk about the woes of single parenthood. The things he says and does, and the audience’s reaction to him, are hysterical. (Once, anyway. We were shown this scene at a special preview during South By Southwest and I laughed until I cried. Seeing it again, with the element of surprise gone, takes a lot of the oomph out of it.) But so what? They aren’t overreacting or behaving like bigots. Their response to Brüno is natural and appropriate. It’s satire without a target.
This becomes more of a problem later, when the film finally gets around to addressing what you thought it was going to address all along: homophobia. Brüno and Lutz run into a group of those “God Hates Fags” pseudo-Christians from Kansas who protest at funerals, and you think, “OK, here we go.” But nothing comes of it. In another scene, Brüno, trying to de-gay himself, goes camping with three stereotypical Southern rednecks, but the way he provokes them into action makes HIM the idiot, not them. In legal terms, it’s entrapment. Yeah, they get angry with him — but only after he makes aggressive sexual advances on them. A better tack would have been to put Brüno among homophobes and let their innate bigotry emerge without having to drag it out of them. The film has almost none of that.
Maybe it’s inevitable for a second film, but “Brüno” (directed again by Larry Charles) doesn’t have quite the same gleefully anarchic spirit as its predecessor, “Borat.” The new film feels more calculated and contrived, at least in part because the character himself is more cynical. Where Borat was an earnestly dumb but enthusiastic foreigner who simply wanted to experience America, Brüno has the specific motive of wanting to become famous. Thus, his actions — and by extension the behind-the-scenes work of making the film — seem less free-spirited, more agenda-driven. (“Borat,” the film, had an agenda too, of course — it just wasn’t as obvious about it.)
But while “Brüno” lacks focus and may not be as sharp as it could be, it still offers plenty of smart, raucous entertainment. Whether it holds up on repeat viewings is beside the point; that first time is a doozy. Don’t forget the eye bleach.
B (1 hr., 23 min.; )