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Straight Eye for the Queer Guy

MOVIE REVIEW
Brüno (2009)

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Mark Schwartzbard/Universal Pictures

“Brüno” pushes the boundaries of good taste by taking the ribald skits Sacha Baron Cohen performed as the character on “Da Ali G Show” and supersizing them for the big screen. It fulfills that base function in the same fashion as “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” with each scene structured around the comic shock value of the star pushing the limits of taste and sanity. Yet, those individual set pieces lack the cohesive, nasty satiric sensibility that characterized the fictional Kazakh journalist’s jaunt through Americana hell.

Here, Mr. Baron Cohen and his team (director Larry Charles, co-screenwriters Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer and Jeff Schaffer) riff on the vagaries of celebrity and the calamities of a desire for fame taken to a crazed extreme. It’s funny stuff, sure; but more in a “look at how outrageous we’re being sort of way” than one that comes close to engaging in meaningful social commentary. Linked by the thinnest of narratives, the flaws in Mr. Baron Cohen’s characteristic approach of improvising around real encounters with real, unknowing people become all too apparent once its novelty wears off.

Brüno, the lesser known of the trifecta of “Ali G” characters, is a gay Austrian fashion icon, with an emphasis on the gay. He’s an outsized figure who, after being fired as the host of “Funkyzeit mit Brüno,” his popular TV show, decides to go seek fame in America. The rest of the film chronicles that desperate quest for some sort of notoriety, which Brüno goes to great lengths to fulfill, trying everything from adopting an African baby to volunteering for a kidnapping by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Mr. Baron Cohen’s fearlessness goes on full display in this latest chapter of his ongoing quest to become the 21st century’s premiere arbiter of tasteless performance art. The comic’s sojourn through the streets of Jerusalem in a cut-off lingerie variation on the Hasidic wardrobe, followed soon thereafter by the encounter with a real terrorist reemphasize his superhuman imperviousness to insanely dangerous scenarios. He gleefully thrusts himself in harm’s way made all the more dangerous by his steadfast enhancement of the character’s caricatured flamboyance. Every gleeful “what’s up,” every screaming wardrobe decision and every overdetermined runway strut become the tools with which the comic pokes and prods his subjects, hoping to elicit a noteworthy response.

He succeeds at doing so repeatedly, but none of the reactions to his inflammatory behavior approach the revelatory value of, say, the infamous “Throw the Jew Down the Well” sequence of “Da Ali G Show.” It’s hardly a newsflash that a large swath of the American populace might respond to a living, breathing gay stereotype with something less than total affection. Whereas Borat’s wide-eyed, innocent solicitations draw out the unexpected from his interview subjects and the other figures he encountered on his continental journey, Brüno flaunts his otherness so openly it’s hard to be particularly impacted by their revulsion. Additionally, the craven drive for celebrity espoused by Brüno, his willingness to compromise whatever ethics might be floundering in the deepest recesses of his being just so people might notice him is a story that’s already been told in the lives of a generation of figures in the Warholian era. In “Brüno,” Mr. Baron Cohen’s still working without a net, and there’s value in that; but he also lacks what’s set his previous work apart: a unique purpose.

BRÜNO

Opens on July 10 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Larry Charles; written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer and Jeff Schaffer, based on a story by Mr. Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Mr. Hines and Mr. Mazer and characters created by Mr. Baron Cohen; directors of photography, Anthony Hardwick and Wolfgang Held; edited by James Thomas and Scott M. Davids; music by Erran Baron Cohen; art directors, Denise Hudson and David Saenz de Maturana; produced by Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Roach, Mr. Mazer and Monica Levinson; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Sacha Baron Cohen (Brüno), Gustaf Hammarsten (Lutz), Clifford Banagale (Diesel), Chibundu Orukwowu and Chigozie Orukwowu (O. J.) and Josh Meyers (Kookus).

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