Brüno, the latest entrée in Sacha Baron Cohen’s quest to dismantle American idiocracy, is raunchy, ribald, riotous, risqué, over-the-top, obnoxious and brutal, smashing cultural conventions with all the zeal of a 2-year-old let loose in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese. It’s that chaotic and that funny to watch—funny in the oh-no-he-didn’t—kind of way.
Except that some times, watching Brüno, you wish that he really didn’t. Or hadn’t.
This is humor on steroids, humor with a savage wit, with an emphasis on savage. Yes, it is very, very, very funny. And it is also more than a little mean.
Brüno, directed by Larry Charles and written by Baron Cohen, picks up where Borat (2006) left off: Clueless naïf takes on America in a quest for stardom, stumbling and bumbling through both big cities and burbs, playing with unwitting “real people,” poking and prodding until their hypocrisy is laid bare. This time around, the clueless naïf is a horny, gay Austrian rather than a horny straight Kazakh.
Brüno, a talk show host with a penchant for wearing lederhosen that exposes more than his legs, is faced with a crisis of identity: He’s been kicked out of the fashion world—tearing through a chi-chi poo fashion show while wearing a Velcro suit didn’t help—and dumped by his Pygmy lover. He’s been, to coin the parlance of Heidi Klum in Project Runway, “Aufed.” So he decides to quit fashion. Not that the fashionista has much choice. His new quest: “To be the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler!”
With Borat and the Ali G show, Baron Cohen played the equal opportunity trickster, exposing mendacity and perfidy—or just plain stupidity—wherever he found it, from the hoi polloi to the powers that be. But here, perhaps because Baron Cohen is now famous, and that much more recognizable, he’s got to cast a wider net to find fresh new dupes. Which means that there are fewer famous folks to take down—so he goes after the little people: an all-black audience at a Maury Povich-style daytime talk show in Dallas; a crowd of wrestling fans in Arkansas; desperate stage parents at a casting call; Islamic terrorists hiding out in a sleeper cell. As with Borat, reality and fiction are blended until one is undistinguishable from the other. Though, watching Brüno trying to make a sex tape with Ron Paul (“Has anyone ever told you that you look just like Enrique Iglesias?”), we’re pretty sure that the onetime presidential candidate wasn’t in on the joke.
With Brüno, Baron Cohen takes on celebrities adopting African orphans; the cult of celebrity and our obsession with celebrity “bump watches.” (His answer to the bump watch mania: Celebrity Ultrasound.) But he’s most concerned with taking on homophobia, using as its leitmotif anal sex jokes. Brüno is obsessed with the backside of life, from acrobatic sex with the aforementioned Pygmy to oral sex with the ghost of Milli Vanilli, employing all sorts of creative props as a stand-in for the real thing. And it goes the full monty. Close-up.
Yes, he goes there.
As performers go, Baron Cohen is fearless, not afraid to look ridiculous in pursuit of the laugh and his larger point. He’s all open-mouthed, blow-dried greed, the Botoxed embodiment of the seven deadly sins, served up with an extra helping of the second sin—lust.
But after a while, the humor feels mean-spirited. You’ve already seen Baron Cohen take on the redneck bigots in Borat. To see him revisit this territory again feels like a cheap shot—a classicist cheap shot. Without question, Baron Cohen is laughing at them, not with them. You, too, will most likely laugh, and laugh until your sides hurt. But you’ll be left with a nasty aftertaste.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.