It’s strange to consistently laugh at a film and while you’re doing so, lean over to the person next to you and whisper, “This is pretty bad,” but that’s exactly what I found myself doing while watching Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to the highly successful 2006 effort Borat. This time around Cohen plays the title character, a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista who is outcast from the fashion world and decides to head to America in hopes of “becoming the biggest Austrian star since Hitler.” The words are funny, the character is funny and several of the climactic moments of each situation are funny, but on a whole it feels like a mash-up of YouTube videos, most of which are never given the time to get to the good stuff with a narrative that never hits its stride.
Bruno follows the Borat mold in pitting Cohen’s outrageous character in the laps of the unsuspecting. We are meant to believe every moment is genuine including Bruno’s interview with a real-life terrorist and a swinger party gone wrong as he gets whipped by a naked woman before jumping out the window. The latter of which seemed like a highly staged situation and the fact I am concerning myself with such matters speaks to the comedic value of the situation in the first place.
Borat was funniest when Cohen’s character was poking fun at American insecurities and stereotypes, but Bruno finds common ground with Borat in this respect only a couple of times. The rest of the time his actions are so outrageous they approach the point of being in-your-face exhibitionism and by no means reflect the behavior of a person who just happens to be gay, which pretty much eliminates what appears to be the point of the exercise.
Bruno’s sit downs with a pair of southern preachers dedicated to curing homosexuality are moments when the film finds its groove, pointing out the simpleminded nature of some people and using it for comedic effect. But a scene where he is walking down the street handcuffed to another naked man and happening on a “God Hates Fags” protest actually results in no reaction whatsoever — even after he tries to tackle one of the protesters, a move that would outrage anyone, never mind your stance on a person’s sexual orientation. To put it plainly, Bruno tries too hard and even then ultimately comes up empty.
Perhaps the funniest moment in the film is a scene where Paula Abdul agrees to be interviewed by Bruno while using a group of Mexicans as furniture to the point Abdul even uses one of the men as a coffee table for her water. It’s funny. You can’t believe what you are seeing. Does Paula Abdul really have no problem using another human being as a chair? Unfortunately, before the scene goes any further Bruno has his assistant wheel in a naked man with a condom on his penis and a smorgasbord of food on his chest. Abdul is out the door and the scene is done. The moment is lost, whereas a bone-headed interview with Abdul sitting on a human for the duration would have been priceless. Anyone would have left after food was served on a naked man, but not everyone would have given an interview using a human chair.
Another funny moment includes a focus group watching a Bruno created TV pilot that includes a CGI’d talking urethral opening and enough material to shock (or bore) anyone. It’s funny because the material is shocking and people are watching it as if it is legitimate, but its value to the film’s overall narrative is limited.
Bruno simply suffers from an excess of shocking material and a lack of the comedic talent Cohen has proven he has, primarily how Borat used Cohen’s sense of humor as both a social commentary and a comedic device. His one-time television show “Da Ali G Show” is the quintessential example and Borat was an out-of-the-gates hit, but Bruno doesn’t even come close to living up to either of its predecessors. While some of the moments in Bruno may live on forever, they will live on forever on YouTube where they would have best been suited in the first place.