In his new film Brüno, fearless ambush comedian Sacha Baron Cohen travels across the United States in the guise of a funny-accented foreign TV personality who confronts unsuspecting Americans with their prejudices and hypocrisies. Why mess with a winning formula? Cohen’s previous guerrilla comedy, 2006's Borat, earned more than $120 million in America, and cost about $100 million less than that.
Since the previous film blew Borat’s cover, Brüno casts Cohen as a gay Austrian fashionista instead of an anti-Semitic Kazakhstani telejournalist. Again, Cohen primarily shares the screen with real people suckered by his pre-planned antics. Brüno’s fawning assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) serves as his foil/traveling companion, playing the same basic role as Borat’s lumpish producer (Ken Davitian).
Both films document a series of pranks, some uproariously funny hits,some squirm-inducing duds, but most with an edge of cruelty. Audiences that can tolerate gags about anal bleaching and dildo attacks will laugh enough to justify a ticket price, but Brüno’s only as funny as its individual jokes. Borat’s outrageousness, however, felt like more than the sum of its parts. So, what makes Borat a “great success” while Brüno seems so five minutes ago?
First, Brüno seldom catches the audience off guard. We've seen the setup before, and even a few of Brüno’s marks seem to be playing along with the joke. Some of Brüno’s best scenes involve elaborate preparation, such as Brüno parading his adopted African baby O.J. before an African-American audience of Dallas’ “Today with Richard Bey.” An even more elaborate setup involving a steel-cage match in Arkansas reaches heights of hilarity worthy of Andy Kaufman. The final musical number is no more unscripted than Jimmy Kimmel’s “I’m Fucking Ben Affleck,” although it should be acknowledged that the South provides Cohen with a cornucopia of stooges in both films.
Currently, the gay rights movement commands a cultural tipping point, but Brüno serves less political meat than you'd expect. Scenes involve boot camp and a man-on-man wedding, but the film only glances at gay marriage and "don’t ask, don’t tell." Cohen and director Larry Charles uncover more substance in meetings with facilitators of the “ex-gay movement,” including one expert who, without prompting, enumerates the ways in which women are annoying.
In the previous film, Borat’s situations often relied on verbal comedy carried to absurd lengths, such as the repeated inquiries for a car dealer to equip a vehicle with a “pussy magnet.” Borat relied on fairly vicious stereotypes of former Iron Curtain countries, but contained the element of surprise, such as Borat’s demand for “gypsy tears” at a yard sale. Brüno’s Austrian jokes prove more predictable and half-hearted, including references to such celebrities as "Stevie Wunderbar” and “Bradolph Pittler.”
Brüno’s umlaut is just one of his conspicuous accessories, and the film offers near-constant visual jokes based on Cohen’s flamboyant, revealing outfits. (Costume designer Jason Alper deserves an Oscar nomination and probably won’t get it.) Many of the film's jokes hinge on wardrobe malfunctions or Cohen hitting on guys until they lose their tempers. You feel sorry for Ron Paul when he (nearly) falls prey to one would-be seduction.
The two films’ differences partly hinge on Borat's and Bruno’s natures as fictional characters, assuming that you can think of them as more than just beards for Cohen’s pranks. While too brutish to be innocent, Borat had an endearing optimism and naiveté. Plus, the film offered a satisfying arc as he sought cultural learnings of America and to woo Pamela Anderson. (“Prepare the wedding sack!”) Brüno gets fired from his show “Funkyzeit” and travels to Hollywood merely to become famous by any means necessary. As a showbiz pretender, though, Brüno seldom becomes the butt of the jokes the way, say, a Will Ferrell character would.
Ultimately, you just don’t like Brüno as much as Borat, and you get the feeling that Cohen and company don’t, either. Brüno has no shortage of amusing moments, but Brüno’s signature salutation “Vassup?” is no “Jagshemash!”