Given the kaleidoscopic venn diagram of contexts in which Bruno can and will inevitably be viewed, it's tough to know precisely where to start, and how far to go when deconstructing Sacha Baron Cohen's new comedy. Like the singular, groundbreaking Borat, it's a balls-out comedy, but it's also a social commentary; it's both the latest movie Cohen appears in, and the big-deal "next effort" from him as a performance artist and lead rather than costar or day-player; and finally, it's a lightning rod for controversy and also a generally innocuous goof on mainstream expectations of him and his character, a flamboyant homosexual. All of which suggests that the film is, or perhaps would necessarily be, richer and more substantive than its predecessor - the sort of galvanizing experience that leaves audiences buzzing, changes minds and perceptions, and transforms the face of entertainment forever.
And yet, Bruno is curiously ineffective, a sort of middling effort that fails to liberate itself from the stereotypes that provide the character's foundations, even if it also doesn't deliberately or harmfully reinforce them.
In the film, Cohen plays the title character, a gay TV host for whom the word flamboyant was invented and then immediately discarded because it was too modest. After he unceremoniously ends his stint on Austrian TV thanks to a public mishap in a velcro suit, Bruno comes to America to restart his career, soon discovering that the only folks more clueless than him about stardom are the people trying to help him become one.
Bruno employs many of the same techniques that proved effective in Borat, most specifically finding participants who will gamely accommodate Cohen's increasingly outrageous behavior in exchange for the opportunity to promote themselves or even just appear on camera. Unfortunately – albeit understandably - the widespread success of Cohen's earlier film made it considerably more difficult for the filmmakers (including returning director Larry Charles) to find folks who weren't in on the joke, and as a result much of the film feels staged. While the payoff for a scene in which Bruno ruins take after take as an extra on Medium is worth the set-up, celebrity appearances by Paula Abdul and others feel too unnatural to work as organic situations, no matter how aggressively Cohen and co. might have tried to keep their collaborators off guard.
Meanwhile, many of the segments feel as if they've been augmented via editing to maximize their comedic payoffs. The primary difference between Borat and Bruno as characters is that Borat drew out honest reactions from his interview subjects because of his low-grade ignorance and genial demeanor, while Bruno basically bullies his interviewees, and moreover, leaves them indefensible to the essence of who he is – meaning less his homosexuality than his confrontational personality. In one sequence, Bruno spends a night in the woods with a group of Southern hunters, and he elicits few meaningful reactions from them (in terms of the film), at least until he sneaks up to one of their tents buck-naked in the middle of the night.
It's only because of this derriere derring-do that the sequence really builds to something; otherwise, the hunters generally ignore his provocations or more or less respectfully dismiss them. But whether or not they're actually homophobic, it's fair to suggest that they react the same way anyone would if a 6'4" naked man slipped into their tent in the middle of the night - much less if he suggested that one or more of them resembled any of the characters on Sex and the City.
Furthermore, the "ambush" mentality of many of the sequences, whether the tactic was necessary or not, further undermines the power of what later ensues. In one scene, Bruno secures an interview with Ron Paul in order to coerce him into participating in a sex tape; while I have no particular sympathy for (or even familiarity with) Paul the politician, I actually felt momentarily sorry for him instead of enjoying the joke. So many of the set-ups are predicated on catching people in inescapable circumstances and then telling them "I'm gay. No, I'm gay! No, I'm GAY!" that when they react with offense (or more often, mild discomfort), their reaction feels too engineered to be meaningful as cultural commentary or even just good comedy.
At the same time, however, I do think that much of the advance criticism of the film for its "depiction" of homosexuality is undeserved, although it doesn't do a lot to help, either. Anyone familiar with Cohen's comedy will recognize that his intent is not to lampoon gay lifestyles but the perception of gay lifestyles, and to confront those preconceived ideas with a monstrous but safe-as-art context in which to examine them. Unfortunately, I also suspect that the Bruno's audience will not be populated by people who are "on the fence" about homosexuality; because Universal bravely (and wisely) put Cohen's fey charisma at the forefront of their advertising campaign, folks lining up to see the film seem more likely to laugh at the on-screen prejudices than contemplate or consider their own.
Ultimately, the film's lack of effectiveness is in many ways an unfortunate byproduct of Cohen's success with Borat: while it was no doubt harder for him to find people this time who were unfamiliar with him and his work for interviews and comedy segments, audiences watching film will be readier to laugh at the end result, if only because they know that Cohen's comedy is predicated on exposing prejudice, no matter how much pressure is applied in order to elicit it. That said, there are more than a handful of funny moments, many of which make me laugh just thinking of them; if the sheer, exhilarating thrill of duping a crowd of ultimate-fighting enthusiasts into watching a romantic reunion between two men doesn't make you laugh, then a talking penis surely will.
But as a whole, there's both something disappointing and satisfyingly necessary about Bruno that justifies its existence. Because not only does it cathartically exhaust his roster of existing characters, but it proves that Cohen can't do the same thing twice (even with different characters), and forces him to find another character or technique to uncover these very real, meaningful and informative points of view about who we are and what we think. The great thing is that Cohen is incredibly gifted, and incredibly committed to this kind of performance, and performance-as-art; he has the potential to become this generation's Peter Sellers or Andy Kaufman, if he isn't already. Ultimately, Bruno is the extension and fulfillment of the promise that Sacha Baron Cohen made with Borat; but if there are any new lessons to be learned from the film about what entertainment can be, and more importantly, what it can teach us, it's that sometimes getting what we expect or want is not always the thing that we need most.