Like journalism, comedy is generally most appealing when it afflicts the comfortable. This is especially true of the particular brand of humor pioneered by Sacha Baron Cohen, which functions as a kind of Bizarro cousin to journalism, an uninvited excavation of real people’s buried bigotries and secret shames.
Baron Cohen's latest foray into the cinema of deception and discomfort, Bruno, is, like his prior effort Borat, envelope-shredding and, for the most part, hilarious. But like Borat, it is also on occasion an unsavory enterprise, one that takes scattered shots at elites before settling down to the business of mowing down the masses, on the evident premise that an awful lot of people (perhaps most people) hold views so reprehensible that they deserve to be exposed through trickery, and then ridiculed.
As Borat, Baron Cohen accomplished this feat by feigning an Old World primitivism on subjects such as women and Jews, and daring his marks to concur or, at least, to let his comments stand uncontested. As Bruno, he takes the opposite tack. Rather than directly encourage expressions of prejudice, he instead offers an irresistible target: a flamboyantly gay, 19-year-old Austrian fashion maven, who is also a committed exhibitionist, a passive-aggressive sexual predator, and a pathological fame junkie. It's not hard to imagine what will happen when he is released into the heartlands of America.
And released he is, after a fashion-runway mishap in his native Vienna results in the cancelation of his television show "Funkyzeit mit Bruno." As Bruno explains, "For the second time in a century, the world had turned on Austria's greatest man, just because he had the bravery to try something new."
Denied the fame he so richly deserves in his homeland, he pursues it here by any means available: taking a role as an extra on "Medium"; trying to entice Congressman Ron Paul into making a sex tape with him; flying to the Middle East to broker a peace agreement; swapping an iPod for an African baby; and hosting a halfhearted celebrity interview show that culminates with his penis dancing a variation of the can-can. (I feel obligated to report that his anatomy makes the mercury jump far above ninety-three, and not in a good way.)
The gags are typically sexual, frequently shocking, and, more often than not, hysterical. I, for one, am unlikely ever to look at an exercise bike, a vacuum cleaner, or bungee cords quite the same way again. And if you ever happened to wonder what an extended pantomime of a same-sex "one man band" would look like, well, prepare to have your curiosity satisfied.
Gradually though, the Teutonic fashionistas and Hollywood hangers-on give way to more downscale, red-statey targets. A gay-conversion Christian is told that his lips were made to do something other than praise Jesus. An Alabama hunter has to fend off a late-night visit from a naked intruder. And attendees of the ultimate fighting contest "Straight Dave's Man-Slammin' Max Out" are unexpectedly treated to an altogether different form of man-on-man spectacle. Some of these segments are funny, but they're more than a touch unpleasant as well, even if none approaches the cruelty of the rodeo Muslim-hater and drunken fraternity brother scenes in Borat. It seems clear, moreover, that Baron Cohen is well aware of what he is doing, as both films open with mostly-scripted humor, move on to celebrity encounters (Bob Barr and Alan Keyes in Borat, Paula Abdul and Harrison Ford in Bruno), and only later, after establishing the audience's goodwill, devolve into rube-bashing.
It's an odd cop-out for so fiercely gifted a comedian. At 37, Baron Cohen has already assembled a more interesting stable of distinct comic types--not just Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, but also Jean Girard, Julien, and Pirelli--than perhaps any actor since Peter Sellers. This is not a man who is doomed to be Allen Funt, or for that matter, Ashton Kutcher. He doesn't need to rely on the easy titillations and voyeuristic pull of reality TV, as evidenced by the fact that many of the funniest scenes in his films haven't involved "civilians" at all. He can--and, one hopes, will--do better than this.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.