Brüno is like Milk, but with a talking penis. It’s an analogy Sacha Baron Cohen’s 19-year-old Austrian gay fashionista—and host of Funkyzeit mit Brüno—would certainly appreciate, if only for the sexual-fluid connotations, as Cohen and Larry Charles’s follow-up to Borat makes clear that Brüno is a man driven by the head not on his shoulders but, rather, the one encased in his red thong. Same-sex explicitness is the name of Brüno’s game, a modus operandi designed, on one hand, to simply generate amazed laughter. Nonetheless, the lengths to which the film goes to force-feed graphic homosexual imagery to a mainstream audience is also undeniably driven by at least a modicum of social consciousness, a desire to demolish the closet door via not decorous prestige-pic activism but, instead, gross-out prankster humor. In a sense, Brüno—despite being played by a straight comedian—is something of a pioneer in so far as he wields his sexual openness as a weapon against both traditional God-hates-fags intolerance as well as keep-it-behind-closed-doors tolerance preached by well-meaning liberals. Co-opting Farrelly Brothers gooiness and Ashton Kutcher candid-camera shenanigans for extreme, gay-themed stunts, Brüno normalizes his sexuality, in the process making the subject of his dildo and bondage-related gags not gayness’s yuckiness but, fundamentally, raunchy inappropriateness.
Brüno’s representation of homosexuality has been the crux of concern in certain corners, and with some good reason. Whereas Kazakhstani journalist Borat is an anti-Semite whose prejudiced comments compel others to articulate hate for Jews, Brüno attempts to prod homophobia through aggressively gay behavior. The two characters have divergent relationships to their intended targets—Borat being on their side, Brüno being the source of their bigotry—and, given those dynamics, Brüno’s lurid behavior could, in theory, become the joke itself, confirming and exploiting stereotypes for derisive humor. Yet Cohen, shrewd as ever, sidesteps such pitfalls by immediately going for the over-the-top jugular, providing during Brüno’s first few minutes a montage of machinery-assisted sex so insane that the star swiftly, definitively posits his material as first and foremost about the hilarity of boundary-pushing nastiness. In that sense, the film is something along the lines of a triumph, a ribald 88 minutes of ever-increasing outlandishness that takes a studio-cinema taboo—the sight of men getting it on with men, often with the aid of toys and/or kinky getups—and makes use of it for oh-no-they-didn’t craziness.
Still, despite its funniness, which climaxes (figuratively, and almost literally) in riotous fashion inside an Arkansas mixed-martial-arts octagon, Cohen and Charles’s latest act of provocation suffers in comparison to both its big-screen predecessor as well as its small-screen origins. In the two-plus years since Borat, Cohen’s ability to go incognito has, on the evidence of Brüno’s dearth of high-profile caught-on-film hoaxes, taken a serious hit, the result being that one of Brüno’s two trademark objects of ridicule—the fashion industry and its embarrassing sense of self-importance—is only briefly taken to task. Now too famous to sneak his way into runway shows or premieres in order to compel big shots to express asinine views on themselves, their professions, and the world at large, Cohen is relegated to explore other avenues, settling on a flimsy narrative about Brüno’s decision to move from Austria to Los Angeles—leaving behind his pygmy boy toy, and accompanied by his doting assistant’s-assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten)—to first host a celeb-interview show, and then later to become an icon himself.
Deprived of mocking moronic models and doofus designers, Brüno instead goes after two targets: celebrity-media culture and homophobia. It’s a tack that reaps substantial rewards, whether it be a focus-group watching his TV pilot “A-List Celebrity Max-Out” (which features the aforementioned talking phallus), a phony photo-shoot casting call in which he convinces parents to allow their kids to participate in unholy lunacy (posing as concentration camp Nazis, operating “antiquated heavy machinery”), or a talk show appearance where, in front of an all-black audience, he discusses single parenthood before bringing out his own adopted African son sporting a T-shirt that reads “Gayby.” The crass entitlement of stars and the repugnant hunger for fame are subjects Cohen sharply dissects through nonsense—a Paula Abdul skit involving creative seating arrangements is vintage absurdity—and he’s similarly cutting when it comes to gay-panicked knuckleheads, highlighted by a prolonged reaction shot after he makes a goading man-love comment to hillbilly Alabama hunters with whom he’s camping. Though there’s less surprise to these sequences than in Borat, and a few tread too closely to that film’s template (notably, a chat with Ron Paul), they remain expertly orchestrated and vigorously amusing, Cohen’s wit the byproduct of both canny planning and sharp improvisation.
As with Borat, some material has obviously been staged and more than a few bits—often concerning the “plot”-based relationship between Brüno and Lutz—flounder. Yet even when it seems handcuffed by the practical restraints imposed by Cohen’s notorious reputation, Brüno feels energized, a go-for-broke bit of ridiculousness that regularly astonishes and amuses. A slightly more consistent focus would have benefited the film’s underlying socio-political aims, a few less been-there-done-that sequences might have freshened up the proceedings, and the deletion of a climactic music video—replete with mega-star cameos—would have helped alleviate the occasional sense that Cohen is working from a chummy insider position this time around. Regardless, Brüno manages a feat that sibling studio comedies like The Hangover are actively working against: namely, making homosexuality not something to derogatorily laugh at, but merely another, equal-opportunity vehicle for shocking humor. That alone, as well as the fact that it’s the summer’s most amusing cinematic offering, makes the film, to quote the man in question, pretty wunderbar.