When the Greeks gazed up at the stars, they saw heavenly bodies; so, too, does Baron Cohen’s blond-banged fashionista, Brüno. “It makes you think of all the hot guys in the world,” he offers, lost in his German-accented reverie. The silence that follows is thick, particularly for his three flannel-clad hunting companions who can’t bear to look at him. Something crackles in the woods; the situation feels unsafe.
Had Brüno been built entirely of such wonderfully awkward moments, we might be celebrating it as more than just a sporadically riotous comedy. But it’s impossible for Brüno to be as funny as Borat. Not only has Baron Cohen himself gone from outsider to insider (resulting in fewer gotchas and a whiff of staginess), but his new character also functions with an in-crowd wink; he’s less of a schmendrick than a flouncing poodle used to being stroked. And most of us know that guy already, gay or straight. So as the star and his team of (re)writers force a narrative on their runway outcast—to become the “biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler”—you realize that their comedy needs dumber dopes than ever: hicks who haven’t encountered celebrity vanity or the out and proud.
Swish is undeniably part of the humor, yet never in a mean-spirited way. (The target, as with Borat, is latent intolerance.) Still, those who go in with their jaws clenched are bound to find offense. Better to focus on the stuff that works outrageously: Baron Cohen antagonizes a talk-show audience with his adopted black “gayby” and, at one point, is pushed out a window by a dominatrix. An erect penis stares straight into the lens and screams from its urethra, “Brüno!” That’s the whole film in a nut sack—are you laughing yet?