When gonzo British satirist Sacha Baron Cohen last descended upon these United States, in the guise of former Soviet Bloc journalist Borat Sagdiyev, his great subject was America's cultural isolation. The recurring joke was that if you claim to be from someplace like Kazakhstan, you can do pretty much anything and most Americans will just assume that's normal "over there."
But now as Bruno, the Austrian fashionista and host of the (fictional) show Funkyzeit Mit Bruno, Cohen (again assisted by guerrilla director Larry Charles) aims at twin targets. In portraying a flamboyant and sexually aggressive gay man, Cohen's latest creation borders on queer minstrelsy and the film is obviously meant to provoke and expose homophobia: Within the first 10 minutes, Bruno assaults the audience with the most clinical and obscene buttsex jokes ever displayed on a multiplex screen.
But perhaps more central to Cohen's mission is the film's near-merciless attack on America's glorification of fame and celebrity. In fact, despite such potentially panic-inducing sequences as visits to an "anal bleaching" facility and a swingers party, the most memorable and most damning sequence in Bruno is nothing more than a series of calm conversation scenes.
Here, Bruno is a casting director, interviewing a series of stage parents trying to get their infants into "the hottest baby photo shoot ever. Really edgy." As Bruno describes the use of a series of increasingly dangerous or preposterous props — "Dead or dying animals?," "Bees, wasps, hornets?," "Antiquated heavy machinery?" — to a revolving series of unfazed and eager parents, the comedy turns pitch black. Liposuction for a toddler? Whatever is needed to secure the job.
This need for publicity and attention is skewered throughout, explaining how celebrities like Paula Abdul and Ron Paul find themselves ensnared in Cohen's undercover scenarios even post-Borat.
There is more downtime between good bits this time out. Bruno is more rambling than Borat, which had a cross-country travelogue structure to give it some shape, and more uneven. And this allows more time for the mind to wander to inevitable process questions: How was this filmed? How complicit were the subjects?
In addition to trying to fool unsuspecting targets in the aftermath of Borat, Cohen is taking more risks this time. The ingratiating character Borat cultivated co-conspirators, inspiring people to drop their guard and incriminate themselves (fairly or not) by agreeing with his more outlandish opinions. Bruno is the more dangerous character to play, because this time Cohen makes himself the target of the hate he's trying to provoke and spoof.
When not attacking celebrity culture, Cohen burlesques homophobia, to the point of putting himself in the ring, literally. And that danger may well transfer to the other side of the screen. If the nervous laughter I heard at an opening-day matinee is any indication, Cohen's now-expanded post-Borat audience is likely to be made more uncomfortable this time around. And this discomfort implicates the audience. On the surface, Bruno is less successful filmmaking than Borat, but by provoking an audience allegedly in on the joke, it might be a more successful satire.