There are cringe-inducing comedies, and there are grossout shockfests, and then there is Bruno. Sacha Baron Cohen's latest movie brazenly mates both genres while thrusting in a touch of documentary and hardcore porn.
Bruno made me squirm, but not in the way that Borat did. Whereas Borat succeeded in smartly skewering the stupidity of some Americans by putting them in uncomfortable situations, Bruno doesn't live up to its working subtitle: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt. I wanted this movie to be a nervous-laughter-inducing lampoon of homophobia and Hollywood, to tip my cringe-to-pleasure scale by putting bigoted people in embarrassing situations. Unfortunately, it let me down.
As a character, Bruno is pretty brilliant. Cohen inhabits his role with the same undying devotion with which he shimmies into those buttocks-exposing lederhosen. The host of an Austrian fashion TV show called Funkyzeit, he gets blacklisted after a runway mishap and heads to Hollywood. Thus the mockumentary begins as a sendup of celebrity culture, from stage mothers who let their kids pose with live hornets to Bruno's adopting an African baby. The gags here feel genuine, horrifying, and hilarious.
The movie meanders, however, when Bruno decides that stardom depends on becoming straight and embarks on a series of adventures, from a swingers party to military training, to accomplish that goal. The subject of his skewering shifts from fame-mongers to close-minded Americans, but — apart from his very eye-opening dialogues with "gay curing" religious zealots — these scenes feel staged for shock value more than social commentary.
Though Bruno is short — just over 80 minutes — it relies on many of the same jokes over and over, most of them involving kinky sex and penises. Though some audiences have argued that it perpetuates, rather than exposes, homophobia, my problem with it is even more basic. In trying to skewer the stupidity of ordinary Americans, the movie relies so much on stereotypes and sickout humor that it doesn't seem smart enough to pass judgment.
Photos courtesy of Universal Studios