In 2006, popular British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (of Da Ali G Show) and Masked and Anonymous director Larry Charles (who also scripted some Seinfeld episodes) collaborated to create Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, with Charles at the helm and Cohen co-writing, producing and starring. The film birthed an of-the-moment cultural icon; Borat was (and still is) a groundbreaking, fiercely satirical figure, skewering ugly American intolerance by way of a pseudo-documentary approach, and utilizing Jackass-like physical humor to do so. The latest production from Charles and Cohen, Brüno, finds the duo mining similar territory, and once again constructing a narrative arc to off-set some of the more documentary-esque leanings. But Brüno is more often than not merely provocation, aiming for little more than shock-value comedy and lacking Borat‘s social critique.
We first find gay fashionista Brüno (Cohen), “the most famous Austrian since Hitler,” hosting the foreign television show Funkyzeit mit Brüno. He’s moderately famous, and lives luxuriously with a pigmy flight attendant named Diesel, who he claims to love and engages in all manner of erotic behaviors with. But when Brüno accidentally ruins the Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada fashion show in a sequence that is quite obviously staged (but thanks to a suit “made entirely out of velcro,” very funny), the Austrian is fired from his job and Diesel leaves him for another man. Left only with the company of his assistant’s assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), Brüno decides to travel to LA and sets his sights on becoming a “huge celebrity.” Lutz swears to help Brüno achieve his goals (smitten with the gawky loon), and pursues interviews with various celebrities, beginning with American Idol judge Paula Abdul. But when Brüno’s total naiveté, foolishness and flat-out insanity leads this endeavor horribly astray, both Brüno and Lutz are forced to try something new. The remainder of the film follows Brüno around the globe as he seeks fame, fortune and men to sex with. This is Brüno’s biggest fault; while Borat features some plot — mainly involving the titular Kazakh’s obsession with Pamela Anderson — it’s a secondary focus of the film, almost an afterthought. Borat consists largely of hilarious and revealing nonlinear interviews/encounters with celebrities, politicians and regular people, while Brüno focusses too slavishly on the development of its character, which puts the brakes on a film that is otherwise fun and digestible (it’s under 90 minutes long).
Charles and Cohen continue to push the boundaries of faux-documentary, but their decision this time to adhere to the strained rhythms of their plot hurts the, uh, credibility of their erratic lunacy. But as in Borat, Cohen turns in a committed, transformative comedic performance, piling up laughs via goofy pop culture gags, droll deadpan, exaggerated stereotypes and simple but effective slapstick. Some of the jokes overstay their welcome, but Cohen manages to save the less successful bits by the shear force of his charisma. Goofily sentimental (much like the Farrelly Brothers output in this sense), Brüno manages to achieve a kind of affecting earnestness, something that Borat never came close to. But, for the most part, Brüno is just a riotous good time, and a film that avoids the heavy shadow cast by Borat, succeeding as another unique, character-based comedy piece in Cohen’s comedic canon.