Brüno

So there he was, getting repeatedly whipped by the dominatrix at that redneck swingers’ party, which he attended more or less on the advice of the gay-converter priest, and suddenly I could feel the whole weight of the cultural moment, as if this were some perverse sort of movie-comedy apotheosis.

Like that dominatrix’s breasts, the film is unmistakably unreal, ominously inflated. It’s unsettling to think that the inflation itself has become our new reality baseline. And it’s hard to know or even care anymore about what parts have been staged and who’s in on it and how much is true. But it’s not hard — and therefore rather unpleasantly satisfying — to see that when he’s getting whipped, that much at least is for real.

And he’s so willing to take a beating, it makes you wonder if he actually wants to get hurt. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everybody has a kink. But you have to own it. It seems like the chief concern of Brüno — in which Sacha Baron Cohen’s faux-flaming, fame-craving Austrian fashion correspondent from Da Ali G Show comes to America and to feature length — is to push, hard, until somebody pushes back. Lewd innuendo intended.

When he’s not getting whipped, he’s hunching naked in the night and nudging at the tent flap of a rifle-toting hunter; or prancing in short shorts around some Middle Eastern city where orthodox Jews will chase him through the streets; or making out with his doting personal assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) in a cage surrounded by a drunken, gay-hating mob. Really asking for it, in other words. It’s like Punk’d multiplied by Jackass, although hell if I know what that equals.

Then another thought occurs: If Woody Allen really wants to do misanthropy, maybe Sacha Baron Cohen, not Larry David, is the leading man he needs. Director Larry Charles evidently wants to do misanthropy; before Brüno, Charles’ last movie, Religulous, also used a gay-converter priest (among other easy targets) for sport, and before that he made Cohen’s Borat. Charles has specialized in situational comedy built not from jokes but from incendiary stunts, predicated on the merciless exposure of human shortcomings in an age of obliterated privacy, pandemic vanity, and desiccated dignity. For this, Cohen seems like the perfect muse. And I just thought it worth mentioning here that watching him get whipped somehow also made me think of Woody Allen.

Like Borat before him, Brüno is a satirizing buffoon. He doesn’t merely push boundaries; he gallops headlong across them. Or sashays. Or pedals his dildo-adorned exercise bike. He is critiquing the ritualization of preposterous juvenile shenanigans by ritualizing preposterous juvenile shenanigans. He’s not just giving small-minded homophobes the finger; he’s giving them the dancing, talking penis. And some gay people surely will consider him the embodiment of homophobia.

Brüno’s goal is to become famous. He tries to get an agent and some acting jobs. He attempts a few celebrity interviews. “These are Mexican Chair People,” he explains to Paula Abdul, inviting her to have a seat on a crouching man’s back. “Demi Moore has two of them in her house.” On another occasion, Harrison Ford tells him to fuck off. Then Brüno finds a pair of impossibly ditzy publicists, who suggest he take up a cause. “Darfur is the big one now,” he says. “What’s Dar Five?” They don’t get it. It’s genius, hilarious, awful.

One focus-group responder informs Brüno that his show is worse than cancer. Another suggests that what he needs to do is make a sex tape. So he somehow corners Ron Paul in a hotel room and tries to seduce him. Yes, that Ron Paul. Is there another for whom this would be more outrageous, more embarrassing? Anyway, it does not go well.

And we watch and laugh and cringe and judge. Satire should aim precisely and scour accordingly, but Brüno often feels unfocused and unclean. It’s like the comedy equivalent of an enhanced interrogation technique. Sure, it’ll rip the lid off a seething pit of prejudice and narcissism and stupidity, but what if it also causes those things, or really is made of them? There are scenes in which the humor goes so low as to have negative value. Which scenes these are will vary according to audience threshold.

This cultural moment feels like stinging tedium, like being whipped. But at least some people can get off on it.