The easiest way to sum up the multiple problems with Bruno, writer and actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to 2006’s Borat, is to recall the 1949 Looney Tunes animated short “Curtain Razor.” The cartoon starred Porky Pig as a talent agent auditioning oddball acts, the culmination of which was a wolf who drank a variety of poisons and explosives before swallowing a lit match and exploding. Porky, finally amazed, exclaims, “Say, that really is terrific!” Then the door to his office opens and the wolf’s ghost walks in, forlornly complaining, “Yeah, but there’s just one tiny little thing wrong with it: I can only do it once.” Baron Cohen went all out in the first film, a series of candid camera bits involving his awkward immigrant character interacting with small-town Americans, and he tries to repeat that film’s comedic skill and occasional trenchant sociopolitical insight with a new film about, well, an awkward immigrant character interacting with small-town Americans. It’s not that there are no laughs to be had in Bruno; it’s that there are fewer than you’d want, and they arrive almost before the scenes do. The film feels familiar before it even begins to unspool, and returning director Larry Charles’ set-ups feel cheaper and somehow more exploitive than in the earlier film. Bruno goes further than many other comedies in attempting to wrestle certain issues, like the way conservative Americans deal with gays or how some people will do anything for a taste of fame, but the film stops well short of making any new or even interesting points on either front. Most of all, it feels like a dead man trying to come back to life.
Bruno (Baron Cohen) is a gay Austrian fashionista and the host of a local show dedicated to the fashion industry. The film, set up to play like a documentary of Bruno’s life and travels, feels a bit slicker and more scripted than Borat, but the real problem makes itself known right away: This time around, it’s going to be a lot harder for Baron Cohen to get away with his brand of punking people by forcing them to react to his over-the-top character. He jets off to Milan for fashion week, boasting of having backstage access, where he wears a suit made of Velcro and winds up wrecking half the dressing area before stumbling onto the runway and strutting his stuff. But the choppy sequence plays out almost too quickly to enjoy its premise or wonder what will happen, and one official starts herding the camera toward the door before Bruno can even do any damage. The narrative says he’s fired from his TV gig for his incompetence, transitioning to his futile attempts to get into other events in town, but these scenes don’t feel like Bruno’s struggle with rejection: They play like Baron Cohen trying to crash fashion shows and being stopped by knowing security guards. The levels of unreality here are infinitely harder to delineate than in Borat, mainly because it was obviously tougher for Baron Cohen to put together another roadshow after the success of his first film and after his next one was announced. None of the sequences lasts very long, as if Baron Cohen was constantly on the verge of being found out. It’s often impossible to tell what’s really happening versus what purpose it’s being used for, which makes for diverting existential conundrums on the nature of the film but also makes for a messy, uninvolving story. This isn’t a bit on Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show.” This is a feature film, and the finished product limps across the finish line at 83 erratic, disconnected minutes.
Let go from his show, Bruno resolves to travel to the United States to become famous, pursuing several roads to get there. Just as Borat allowed Baron Cohen to examine how some Americans from the small-town South dealt with an obscure foreigner, Bruno lets him taunt the same group with the presence of a flamboyant gay man. To Baron Cohen’s credit, he usually doesn’t have to give them that much rope before they hang themselves, whether it’s the hunting party who visibly bristle at his “Sex and the City” references to the minister who tries to “convert” Bruno back to heterosexuality. Then again, it’s not exactly shocking that some people from that part of the country are homophobic, and Bruno starts spinning its wheels by trying to act like this is a revelation. What’s more, Borat dipped its feet in the same water, parading Baron Cohen and Ken Davitian naked through town whenever possible. The best moments in Bruno aren’t the ones where Baron Cohen conducts uncomfortable interviews with these people, but where he allows himself to just exist near them, passing through their mostly white worlds like a confusing storm.
Co-written by Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, and Jeff Schaffer, with Peter Baynham also sharing a story credit, the film’s weak narrative is built to let Baron Cohen investigate and mock the lengths people will go to just to become famous in America. Sometimes this takes the shape of Bruno’s bizarre quests to do something worthy of renown, like solving the Middle East crisis, making a sex tape, or adopting a black infant to style himself after Angelina Jolie. At other times, Bruno lets his marks do the talking, as in the jaw-dropping sequence in which he interviews parents of young children for a prospective photo shoot with his own baby, asking them increasingly inane and dangerous questions just to determine how much risk they’re willing to invite on their kids to land a lousy magazine spread. The scene is funny in a terrifying way, and it’s the most effective salvo Baron Cohen fires against the American desire for exhibitionism.
And yet there’s no denying that Baron Cohen is fast running out of ways to make his shtick work on this scale. The scenes in which he interacts with “real people” aren’t staged — that amount of tension and discomfort are impossible to fake — but it’s his run-ins with established stars and the larger entertainment industry that really make Bruno head-scratching. Borat concluded with the hero’s attempt to kidnap Pamela Anderson, one of the few sequences that blurred the line between scripted mockumentary and hidden camera show, but Bruno is replete with Hollywood personalities and situations that could easily be in on the joke given Baron Cohen’s success, skill, and connections. At one point, Bruno tries to become a TV star and winds up as an extra on NBC’s “Medium,” but the amount of screwing around he does on set and the consternation he causes star Miguel Sandoval feel disingenuous because he’s not out in the sticks but dancing in the belly of the beast. Baron Cohen’s satire is meant to mock the media, but when you can’t tell what’s real and aren’t sure what to believe, it gets a lot harder to laugh without feeling like the butt of the joke instead of its audience. Baron Cohen’s genuine intelligence and comedic ability are close to being squandered when, instead of creating a comedy focusing on the world around him, he makes a film that steadily becomes nothing more than a tribute to its creator. Worst of all, I’ve already seen this trick.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.