Brüno arrives in theaters buoyed by months of hype, from Sacha Baron Cohen’s in-character talk show appearances to the MTV Movie Awards gimmick with Eminem. Viewers may hope to be surprised, as when they saw the boundaries-pushing Borat back in 2006. But really, all the anticipation has reduced any potential shock value in Brüno. We shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t repeat the effects of the first movie: it will leave no one appalled or cringing with second-hand embarrassment for unsuspecting interview subjects. But neither is it particularly revelatory or consistently funny.
The protagonist will be familiar to viewers of Da Ali G Show. Host of the TV show Funkyzeit, “gay Austrian fashionista” Brüno interviews designers while wearing outrageous outfits (including a ridiculous Velcro suit) and queries haute couture models on the rigors of walking (“You have to put first zee left foot and zen zee right and zen figger out, you know, vich goes next”). Successful, if not actually respected, Brüno means to make himself known—a feat accomplished when he inadvertently torpedoes a Prada fashion show. Duly blacklisted, he moves with his devoted (and love-struck) assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), to Los Angeles to become “the biggest Austrian star since Hitler.”
And so, like Borat, Brüno goes on a journey, during which he remains largely oblivious to his effects on a series of easy targets, ranging from Hollywood celebrities and Southerners to politicians and Christian ministers. But his film doesn’t really work as sociopolitical satire. Part of the problem is that very few of the “real life” people seem fooled by Brüno’s shtick. While Borat was produced multiple lawsuits by those who felt tricked into participating, most of Brüno’s victims appear ready and willing to play along. Most of the stunts feel staged, more like The Hills than Cultural Learnings.
This can cause problems, as when Paula Abdul looks like the most refined person on set. Barely ruffled as she talks about her desire to “help people” while sitting on a Mexican gardener’s back (one of Brüno’s unconventional chairs), she exemplifies the movie’s credibility gap. As she speeds away after being offered sushi served on a naked body, you suspect that behind the tinted windows of her car she’s high-fiving her assistant.
A few bits seem more “real,” and are as awkward as we’ve come to expect from Baron Cohen. Politician Ron Paul seems genuinely pissed off when Brüno tries to seduce him in hopes of getting famous through a sex-tape scandal (later he complains that he’s such a loser, he can’t even seduce “Rue Paul”). Trying to get kidnapped by a terrorist, he’s run out of the village when he offers grooming advice for Bin Laden, saying he should “lose the beard” because it makes him look like “a dirty wizard or a homeless Santa.” But even the so-called genuineness of this encounter was undermined when Baron Cohen appeared on David Letterman on 7 July and talked about how he set up his interview with the terrorist. When he asked a local contact about safety concerns, he was told, “Don’t worry. Everybody loves you. We all love Da Ali G Show!”
There’s less overt “love” on display in the movie for Brüno himself (whatever that “self” might be). Much has already been made about whether Brüno mocks or promotes homophobia. It’s hard to argue for the former. The character is so over the top in his exaggerated dress and “gay” mannerisms as to be impossible to take seriously, even by his equally stereotypical targets. When a countrified martial arts instructor in a small town in Arkansas seems unfazed by teaching a pleather-clad man wielding multiple dildos, the gig is up. When Brüno strolls the sidewalks in Israel, done up in a hot-pantsed version of Hasidic Jew attire and is, again, run out of town, it’s clear the offense is his mockery of their tradition, not that he’s gay. Likewise, when he asks picketers waving “God Hates Fags” placards for help getting out of his S&M gear, the result is pretty much forgone.
The concern that Brüno is homophobic is less easy to diffuse. Its extremely graphic sex scenes between Brüno and his diminutive boyfriend Diesel (Clifford Bañagale) blatantly confront the viewer with outrageous stereotypes and longstanding anxieties about gay sex. But as these images are made for laughs, the effects are less obvious. One has to wonder what’s at stake, and for whom.