Brüno Review: Who Gets the Last Laugh?

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Mark Schwartzbard / Universal Pictures

Sacha Baron Cohen in Brüno

A man does something unprecedentedly gross in a movie — like when Sacha Baron Cohen rolls around in sexual paroxysms with a fat, hairy guy in the 2006 Borat — and I quickly go through what might be called the five stages of confrontational comedy. These are: shock (because I've never seen that before), outrage (because why should I have to look at that?), laughter (because ya gotta admit, it is funny), admiration (the inspirational nerve of those guys) and acceptance (because breaking social barriers, even ones that should probably remain in place, has a tonic value).

Enough viewers willingly endured those five stages to put Baron Cohen's movie — about a Kazakh TV host who travels to America to study the local fauna — over the quarter-billion-dollar mark at the worldwide box office. Now, as Baron Cohen's Brüno follows Borat, I realize there's a sixth stage: familiarity. As in, "Next!"

The problem with shock comedy is that it works in its purest form only the first time. Where do you go after you've gone too far? No artist can get heads to swivel and stomachs to turn indefinitely. For the audience, shock becomes routine. But Baron Cohen is not going to stop doing what he does: try to amuse moviegoers (who are in on the joke) by abusing the sensibilities of real people (who aren't). He, his writers and director Larry Charles (who did Borat and Bill Maher's Religulous) have devised a new series of provocations for the star to act out in the guise of Brüno, the mincingly flamboyant Austrian fashion journalist who, in a reprise of Borat's slim plot, has headed to America to be a media sensation. By the end, he has flaunted and flouted nearly every permutation of the martial and marital arts.

To wit, he: corrals ex–presidential candidate Ron Paul for a hotel bedroom tryst; calls in the staff from another hotel to get him and his assistant Lutz (Gustav Hammarsten, who back in 1992 was in the Ingmar Bergman–scripted, Cannes Palme d'Or–winning Best Intentions!) out of an S&M leather-bondage embrace; appears on Richard Bey's talk show and, before an audience composed mostly of African Americans, exhibits an African infant he calls O.J. and says he swapped for an iPod; joins a party of heterosexual swingers and tries to vamp the main stud; goes camping overnight with some rough Alabama hunters unfamiliar with the meaning of camp; and stages an ultimate love-in with Lutz before an increasingly volatile crowd of cage-match aficionados.

Some of the encounters are strained; some screamingly, liberatingly funny. Like in any other R-rated comedy, only more so. And even when it doesn't work, Baron Cohen's testicular fortitude is impressive to watch. As Richard Lacayo wrote in his TIME story on Brüno, the star is less an actor than a performance artist, and he's never given a more brazen or acute performance.

We are led to understand that most of the victims knew they were being photographed, yet they played into Baron Cohen's strategies. What'd they do that for? Because, as the glut of reality shows and talk shows indicates, and to generalize just a little, America is a nation of exhibitionists; like Brüno, we all want to be seen, to be on TV or in a movie, even if — especially if — we are shown at our rudest and crudest. And by we, Brüno and I of course mean all those narcissistic simps out there. Certainly not you, the moviegoer who's in on the gag, or you, the discerning reader.

Some reviewers have discerned a rancid comic snobbery here. Brüno is a fool, the film implies, and so are the people who feel threatened by his threatening activities. Gays are to be laughed at, and people who laugh at gays are to be laughed at. Baron Cohen's contempt is universal, his critics charge. And even a sympathetic viewer has to wonder whether a man who puts himself and his dupes in next-to-mortal danger doesn't deserve some clinical study. Or maybe genius, especially comic genius, is a personality disorder. Or maybe Baron Cohen, who wrote a thesis on Jewish involvement in the civil-rights movement in the American South and did some of his research there, is returning to the scene of those old battles for further study of the white Southerners whose brothers killed his kinsmen, bent on the revenge of ridicule.

The line of those reviewers who have soured on Baron Cohen is this: Borat, for all his idiocies, was a genial, ingratiating creature, which is why people of many social strata and prejudices opened up to him, and why the character was able to insinuate himself into filmgoers' hearts. The central character this time is not nearly so ingratiating. In fact, he's a pain in the ass. And that is their critique of the film. How come? To make a value judgment on the amiability factor reduces criticism to "I didn't like Brüno, so I can't like Brüno" or "Brüno is mean to people, and so is the movie."

But that's the point about Brüno: he's every annoying show-biz wannabe, with the discomfort level turned up to 11. He doesn't try to engage people; he performs for them. The typical response to Brüno's preening assertiveness is a slow burn. Whether a psychic watching him mime fellatio, a minister who "heals" homosexuals or the hunters on a long night by the campfire, his victims stare mutely into the middle distance, suppressing their bafflement or anger. In doing so, they upstage Baron Cohen: they are the subtlest comics in the film. In a way, it's their movie, not his. And even if their political or social beliefs are conservative or Neanderthal, they get the last laugh.

Actually, Baron Cohen does. Ha! he says to his critics. You just flunked my latest challenge. If that is indeed his tactic, then the "meanness" of Brüno is its very point, and the movie has earned not just shock but awe.