Like many other dangerous and controversial comedians (Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Howard Stern), the role-playing guerrilla satirist Sacha Baron Cohen knows how to draw an audience into a conspiratorial relationship with him and then make you squirm anyway. Brüno, his new quasi-documentary stunt comedy, is, if anything, a crazier, funnier, and even pricklier pincushion of a movie than Borat, his 2006 tweak of all things dumb, bigoted, and American. Teaming up again with director Larry Charles, Baron Cohen once more wanders the U.S. landscape in the put-on guise of an egomaniacally doltish yet weirdly resonant pest. This time he's Brüno, a cretinous and very, very gay Austrian fashion-celebrity-fame whore in skintight hot pants and a frosted mop of Eurotrash hair that spills over his forehead like the tail of a dead squirrel.
Brüno, who refers to himself in the third person, has an imperious, nostril-flaring air; he's the fashionista as commandant. After he gets kicked off of Funkyzeit, the discofied TV bash he hosts in Austria, he says that ''Brüno was blacklisted,'' substituting a Teutonic racial slur for ''black.'' Brüno, let's be clear, is not a film that behaves itself, even for an ''enlightened'' audience. You can't squeeze it into a tidy liberal box, because it's only too happy to flirt with the taboos and frat-house intolerances it's ridiculing.
As Brüno travels across America and, at moments, visits other parts of the world, he has one compulsion to become famous and he'll achieve it in any way possible. He starts off by trying to meet celebrities, with little success (he gets a ''F--- off!'' from Harrison Ford). On a Dallas talk show, he parades his adopted black baby, which nearly touches off a riot. The scene is a vicious skewer of stars who turn adopted kids into accessories, yet the real joke is that it doesn't take long for a talk show devoted to ''compassion'' to tease out the pitchfork-mob rage of the studio audience. For a while, Brüno, taking a cue from Hollywood, pretends to be straight. He goes to a party for swingers, in a scene so bizarre you'll think, It can't be fake. He also attends a gay ''deprogramming'' session with an evangelical therapist who looks, let's just say, a little bit less than qualified.
The more uncomfortable Brüno makes people, the more he draws attention to their petty churlishness and homophobia. When he ambushes the maverick politician Ron Paul with a go-go dance, you can forgive a visibly shaken Paul for thinking Brüno is nuts though that's hardly an excuse for calling him ''queer.'' Yet is Brüno the scurrilous man-tramp himself a homophobic caricature? My honest answer is: yes and no. Baron Cohen's portrayal certainly feeds into a stereotype of haughty flamboyance. But if one condemns the movie on that basis, then shouldn't we toss Christopher Guest's sublime turn in Waiting for Guffman, Robin Williams' inspired camping in The Birdcage, and so many others onto the bonfire, too? The bottom line is that Baron Cohen, even at his most scathing, makes Brüno gleefully unapologetic about who he is.
Brüno is no comedy of hate, though it does mock any hint of piety by pushing Brüno's in-your-face sexuality...well, in our faces. The movie piles on gags about outré bedroom devices and butt bleaching, and when Brüno pays a visit to a psychic, he tries to bridge the spirit world by miming oral sex (and that's putting it mildly). The psychic's reaction isn't all that funny; mostly, he's just stoically embarrassed. But that's because Baron Cohen is really goofing on us, exploiting the audience's squeamish sexual anxiety only to explode it. Far more than in Borat, he holds a fun-house mirror up to our hidden prejudices, too.
The entire film is in seriously questionable taste, and there will, of course, be debates about what's staged and what's not. Those looking for purity in satire should stay away. Yet there's a vision at work in Brüno the movie is a toxic dart aimed at the spangly new heart of American hypocrisy: our fake-tolerant, fake-charitable, fake-liberated-yet-still madly-closeted fame culture. Brüno ends on a note of scandalously funny out-and-proud triumph, and that's because Sacha Baron Cohen never makes a plea for tolerance. He tosses a grenade for tolerance. A–
The Movie Critics: Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum spar over Brüno: