There are more laughs to be had in Bruno’s brisk 80 minutes than in the combined entirety of pretty much every other comedy this year. Seeing this film in a packed cinema is about as much fun you can have in a theater without being arrested. In fact, Bruno might even challenge its spiritual predecessor Borat on the laughs-per-minute scale. However, the film is as vapid as its eponymous star. It is equally an evisceration and a tribute to the ultimately empty pursuit of fame.
Sacha Baron Cohen has ditched the mankini and donned the hotpants to embody everyone’s favourite homosexual Austrian fashion guru Bruno. The flamboyant celebrity is fired from his job as host of Funkyzeit mit Bruno after accidentally (wink) sabotaging Milan Fashion Week. Spurned by his fellow fashionistas, Bruno heads to LA to become “the most famous Austrian since Hitler”. Joined by his doe-eyed, ‘plain-Jane’ assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammersten), Bruno attempts to produce an American television program, sort out peace in the Middle East, adopt an African baby, and eventually convert to heterosexuality. You know, just like any other average celebrity.
A plot synopsis doesn’t quite capture the visceral thrill of our hero’s bizarre and shocking adventure. Director Larry Charles skillfully welds the fabricated situations with the ‘gotcha’ style confrontations that have made Baron Cohen a modern legend. His run-ins with a terrorist leader and four homophobic camping buddies will leave you clawing at your eyes in cringe-worthy terror. (I would comment on the fact that a gun was pulled on the crew in the latter situation and not in the former, but I’ll leave that to more intelligent social commentators).
When it comes to jaw-dropping ‘how-the-hell-did-they-get-away-with-that’ moments, Bruno trumps Borat in a big, bad way. Hell, Borat looks like a mild-mannered bank teller when compared to the exploits seen in Bruno. The film has far too many highlights to mention, although I must admit that a particular incident involving a focus group had tears streaming down my face. In fact, I only need to write down the word ‘focus group’ to bring back the giggles. See, I did it again! (You can’t tell but I’m giggling as I write this).
Unfortunately, Bruno lacks the biting social commentary that made Borat a modern classic. In his last film, Baron Cohen eviscerated middle-American culture; he unearthed the bigotry, sexism, homophobia and nervous paranoia of George W. Bush’s U.S.A through the prism of a pseudo-Middle Eastern stereotype. In Bruno, Baron Cohen does reengage the Bible belt, employing the homophobia angle once again. However, he seems mostly concerned with mocking America’s culture of celebrity. And wouldn’t you believe it; he goes easy on them! Of all people, surely the Paris Hilton’s and the Perez Hilton’s of the world deserve a public shaming. Perhaps Baron Cohen is making too many Hollywood friends to have a real go at the glitterati?
The structure of Bruno also feels less organic than Borat’s (which was already pretty inorganic). The picture struggles to find a through-line until well into the second act, and the storyline often feels like a rehash of Cohen’s past feature. In the end however, these flaws don’t really dull the gut-busting experience of Bruno. Virtually every punch line scores a hearty laugh, the cringe-worthy moments are beautifully unwatchable, and Baron Cohen’s precise, unflinching and sharp performance is once again pitch-perfect. This man is heading to the all-time comedy greats hall of fame, if he’s not there already. Of course, the flick won’t be for everyone. For instance, if you find penises (real or fake) confronting, you can pretty much write off a solid 40% of the film’s material. Dr. Manhattan himself would blush at the frequency (and sometimes even the application) of the members that turn up in Bruno. But hey, Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t make movies for your grandmother. That is, unless she’s a pretty awesome grandmother.