Brüno Ist … Eh
There's the old music-business line that bands have their whole career to make their first record ... and six months to make the follow-up. While 2006's "Borat" wasn't Sacha Baron Cohen's first film where one of the comedian's clueless characters went out to the world (that would be "Ali G in Da House"), it was the first time Cohen made an entire film out of mock-documentary footage and interviews, as unknowing participants were subjected to idiotic questions and rude behavior with director Larry Charles' camera capturing ordinary people's reactions to exceptional stupidity. In "Borat," Cohen played Borat Sagdiyev, a TV reporter from Kazakhstan, touring America ostensibly for a series of news reports but actually in pursuit of both democracy and Pamela Anderson. In "Brüno," Cohen is back as Brüno, an Austrian fashion reporter who comes to America in search of fame and fortune. And even Brüno's fabulous hair can't hide the sense of "Lather, rinse, repeat" we get from the new film.
As "Brüno" opens with blaring, bad techno, there's some stuff on the fashion world -- the hijacking of a runway show, a stylish-but-sticky Velcro suit causing chaos on the catwalk -- but soon Brüno's fired and exiled, in L.A. trying to become famous, and his empty-headed grand aspirations feel automatically less engaging than Borat's simpler, stupider, purer mission of "love." "Brüno," early on, somehow feels like it's both trying too hard and not trying hard enough. There are outlandish interviews and moments with real people, like when Brüno tries to create a sex-tape scandal by attempting to seduce presidential candidate Ron Paul or focus-groups his new interview show loaded with blatant, fully shorn full-frontal male nudity, that go so far over-the-top so fast that the resulting laughs feel more microwaved than slowly simmered. And Brüno isn't as interesting a character as Borat, nor is he on as compelling a journey. While "Borat" had an anorexically slender narrative reason for its lead character's voyage, it at least had one; "Brüno" drives itself crazy coming up with new reasons to take the protagonist from place to place.
Of course, saying "Brüno" is less than "Borat" is simply saying it's less than brilliant. There are funny bits here, like when Brüno appears before a daytime Texas talk show to talk about his life as a single father with his newly adopted African orphan son: "I gave him a traditional African name -- O.J." Or when Brüno is pre-interviewing showbiz parents to see if their children will appear in a photo shoot with O.J., asking the parent/agents if their infants are fine with a number of factors that may be on-set: "Is your baby fine with dead, or dying, animals?" "Antiquated heavy machinery?" "Amateur science?" The parents are, of course, fine down the line.
And so while "Borat" was a big-screen exploration of America itself in the 20th century, "Brüno" is in part a look at the mechanics of the celebrity-industrial complex, and how people will do anything to be famous -- a lesson readily available on any given evening, thanks to the miracle-curse of reality TV. "Brüno" does have a couple of scenes where Cohen puts himself in harm's way -- and very close to armed, dangerous people in both the Middle East and the Midwest -- in the pursuit of the joke, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Ultimately, though, unlike the cutting and cruel satire of "Borat" (which, really, came from the same cloth as Alexis De Tocqueville's 1835 "Democracy in America," where a foreign observer checked in on the American experiment to find it a work in progress), I can't tell you what the funny in "Brüno" is for. "Borat" felt like the slapstick bit of watching someone being struck in the face with a pie -- a lovingly made, home-baked, tender, fruit-filled one where the gag was backed up by effort and attention to detail. "Brüno" feels like watching someone be hit in the face with a tinfoil pie plate full of whip cream -- briefly funny, but mostly lazy. "Brüno" finishes with a star-studded celebrity sing-along on Brüno's charity single, and while I won't ruin the guests, I will note that it feels like a strained limp to the finish line, and how "Borat" mocked such fabulous famousness, while "Brüno" seems to be trying to co-opt it, looking out from the inside of fame and fortune. "Brüno" is funny, yet it feels merely funny enough -- and that may be the unkindest thing of all you could say about a comedy.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.