4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
As “Brüno” unfolded before my eyes, tears of laughter were pouring out of them, which is pretty much the best thing one could say about a comedy. Doused in debauchery and bolder than “Borat,” this new feature-length farce from mockumentary mastermind Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't just push the envelope, it sets it on fire. Like its 2006 predecessor, it thrives on awkward moments and sheer shock value, causing its viewers severe discomfort and then rewarding them with severely funny, I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that surprises. Parents, hide the kids: if ever there were a movie that earned every inch of its R rating, it's this one. Staunch conservatives, beware: “Brüno” was not made for you, and in fact, its larger mission – beyond its offensive gags – is to highlight what it believes are your more shameful views and characteristics. Everyone else: strap yourselves in for a gasp-inducing, laugh-'til-you-cry trip down Cohen's latest highway of hilarity. As far as I'm concerned, “ Brüno” is the funniest movie if the year.
Based, like “Borat,” on a persona from Cohen's sketch comedy series “Da Ali G. Show” from the early 2000s, “Brüno” follows its title character – an outrageously flamboyant, gay Austrian fashion reporter – through a series of hysterical hijinks. Played by Cohen as an over-the-top cross between Steven “Cojo” Cojocaru and Heidi Klum with man parts, Brüno introduces himself as Austria's hottest style commentator (as a riotous side note, he also claims to be 19 years old). On his hit TV show, “Funkyzeit,” he announces things like which diseases are “in” and which are “out” (autism, he tells us, is “in”). He attends posh venues as one of the fashion community's elite, until an incident at a Milan runway show involving a Velcro suit gets him blacklisted, fired and dumped by his Pygmy flight attendant boyfriend. Deeming the international fashion world as “shallow,” Brüno decides to travel to Hollywood to become “the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler” (or “the biggest gay movie star since Schwarzenegger” – take your pick). With his hopelessly devoted assistant, Lutz (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten), by his side, the crazily clad dreamer proceeds to test every modern method of obtaining overnight stardom, from making a sex tape to adopting a third-world child. (It's a sort of D-list campaign that would make Kathy Griffin proud.) The journey isn't boring for a second, and boasts some of the most unbelievable and unforgettable comic sequences of recent years.
You'd think that with the massive success and popularity of “Borat,” everyone on Earth would recognize Cohen's face, with or without the guy-liner and spray-on tan. But, as “Brüno” proves, many folks out there are none the wiser, and what Cohen gets his interview subjects to say and do will thrill or appall you, depending on the scene and depending on your level of moral sensitivity. Some of the vignettes – such as a roaringly funny “sit-down” with Paula Abdul – lead you to believe that they must be staged, but most – such as an even funnier focus group session, a bit with Congressman Ron Paul and an appearance on a Texas talk show – seem all-too-convincingly candid. Working with an “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” mentality, “Borat” director Larry Charles sticks to the same format of his previous Cohen vehicle, following his star from mishap to mishap with an unflinching eye. The no-holds-barred, fly-on-the-wall style is still very effective, and Cohen is such a wildly gifted one-man army of in-your-face humor that you don't dare miss a moment, even if it's one that's making you squirm. Not only is the British comedian a fearless whiz at slapstick physicality, he's got the jokes: he throws in enough priceless lines to fuel a stand-up marathon. (My personal favorite comes during a chat with an Arab terrorist: “Your King Osama looks like a kind of dirty wizard or a homeless Santa.”) Forget “The Hangover” – you'll be quoting “Brüno” for months.
What viewers may least expect – and what makes this movie more than just a limit-testing side-splitter – is that Cohen has more to deliver besides pranks and punch lines. Though he'll arguably go further than anyone else to make you laugh (even, as he recently told David Letterman, to the point of risking his life), he's out to make you think as well. Of course, he's intent on satirizing the get-famous-quick trends of contemporary celebrity culture, but deeper than that, he's found a ridiculously entertaining way to point out the absurdities of ignorance and intolerance. That's right: the reigning king of bad taste and brazen vulgarity is a humanitarian after all. Bruno's label-happy extravagance and kinky sexual obsessions serve the craziness of the character, but they also underscore the silliness of stereotypes. And many of the situations Cohen gets himself into – namely a one-on-one with a Jesus-touting “gay converter” and a cage match amidst a rowdy crowd of would-be gay bashers – are used to call out right-wing America on its unending homophobia (the cage match scene veers into disturbing territory, depicting a real-life arena that's brimming with rampant, furious hatred). The actor even gives Hollywood a jab: when all of Bruno's fame-seeking schemes fail, he realizes, if he wants to be a big star like Tom Cruise or Kevin Spacey, he'll have to be straight like them, too. The genius of “Brüno” is that it's a message movie hidden by the misdirection of shock and awe.
And of that, there is plenty. If you thought the naked brawl in “Borat” was shameless, get ready for (what could only be) real sex, talking penises, babies on crosses, mechanical dildos and much, much more. If you're up for it, the sinful joy of “Brüno” is the pure amazement at how far Cohen is willing to stretch the boundaries of censorship. There's a kind of liberating delight in the fact that nothing is off limits for this man (save a segment with LaToya Jackson, which was cut following the news of Michael's death). And it's all in good fun: apart from shaking things up, Cohen isn't trying to cause any real harm. He may very well, however, cause a few hernias.