As anyone knows who has seen Borat or Da Ali G Show, there is no denying the chutzpah or talent of Sacha Baron Cohen.
The Ali G character that the comedian and satirist created for television deftly skewered two different kinds of pretension — that of white middle-class kids adopting an asinine ghetto persona, and that of establishment adults so desperate to be cool with “yoof” culture that they co-operated in their own humiliation by interview.
His brilliant Borat character — a bumbling, bigoted, clueless but weirdly lovable Kazakh TV journalist — was an even more successful creation. Borat came from an imaginary but weirdly believable Eastern European/central Asian world of male chauvinism, sexual obsessiveness and prejudice. His encounters with various unknowing American interviewees were filled with old-fashioned “mind your language”-style linguistic misunderstandings and outrageous sight gags.
It is true that the Borat movie sometimes felt like an over-extended episode of Da Ali G Show. But when the main character’s confused shtick began to seem tired, Baron Cohen cleverly shifted gears by resorting to slapstick, usually involving some boundary-pushing male nudity, as in the film’s infamous naked wrestling scene.
It is a resort that is the default setting in Brüno which, in contrast to Borat, feels like an under-polished undergraduate comedy sketch padded out for an hour and a half. It seems like the product of an artist who is either creatively exhausted or who has succumbed to arrogance and complacency.
What satire it contains is crude and heavy handed and aimed at the softest and easiest of targets. Many jokes are worked into the ground. Worse, there is a meanness to the whole exercise. It is apparent in the main character — a thin and obvious creation compared to either Borat or Ali G, and one which owes a lot to Dieter, a famous Mike Myers character on American television’s Saturday Night Live.
Dieter was an effeminate German TV host whose catchphrase was “and now ve dance”. Baron Cohen’s Brüno is a flamboyantly gay, crassly narcissistic Austrian TV host. He wears absurd costumes that allow Baron Cohen to indulge his exhibitionistic side and show off an impressively toned physique. After the cancellation of his show Funkyzeit, Brüno decides “to become the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler” (ho ho) by going abroad.
In one extraordinary scene, Brüno gets a meeting with apparently real Israeli and Palestinian activists who, of course, are not hip to the Ali G genre, and seem to believe that he genuinely does not know the difference between hummus and Hamas.
There is also a brief sequence during his Middle East peace tour when he is wearing a black hat, very short shorts and little else and gets chased by what looks like an angry Orthodox man in a kippah. It hints at what could have been a much braver and more provocative film — if Baron Cohen had been willing to thrust his ultra-gay character in the faces of non-Christian religious believers.
From Israel, he moves on to Los Angeles, where he tries to start a new career as a celebrity interviewer, securing an agent and showing a sample episode to a focus group. Much is made of the latter being shocked by close-up footage of a penis being waved around to music.
Brüno then decides to become famous via a sex scandal involving a politician. Somehow he gets an interview with Ron Paul, the libertarian presidential candidate, who has no idea that he is being set up. When Brüno leads the Congressman into his hotel bedroom and then strips, Paul storms out in a fury. It is a nasty sequence — you are supposed to think that Paul is a fool and bigot, but if a male interviewer did the same thing to a female politician, it would be seen as harassment at best.
For the last, long third of the film, Baron Cohen takes himself and his camera crew to the American south to make fun of evangelical Christians and conservative, rural, working-class people. It is not always clear which interactions of the small-town types are a set-up, though the talk show on which Brüno appears with a black adopted baby is a well-executed fake. However, the most impressive aspect of one typical encounter with some snaggle-toothed hunters is their long-suffering politeness to a creepy weirdo.
It is perhaps less easy to feel sympathy for some of his other victims, especially the expert in “curing” homosexuality. And you probably have to be desperate to be on camera, or stupid, or pathetically open to the media, as in the case of the US Army reserve, to co-operate with the Brüno show.
Nevertheless, there is something hypocritical and half-baked about Cohen’s mocking of homophobes and fundamentalist Christians who claim they can cure gayness. It almost feels as if he has to go after them in order to justify his own indulgence in the shrill, old-fashioned stereotype that Brüno is.
Moreover, there is nothing daring or brave here. It would be different perhaps if Baron Cohen were taking on the anti-gay beliefs of, say, the Dalai Lama, or attacking homophobia somewhere like Pakistan. That would take real guts.
It does not help that the character simply is not as clever an invention as Borat or Ali G. Borat spoke in a brilliant, invented broken-English dialect. Brüno speaks with an Austrian-accented English that Baron Cohen strains to make funny by punctuating with the odd German or pseudo German word. “I was schwarzlisted,” he says after he wrecks a (real) fashion show, “Ich had only nine freunds on myshpace". Later he asks someone: “What if I put my flute up my shtinker?” A little of this goes a long way; a lot becomes a bore.
If you have seen the trailer and the posters then you have already seen many of the film’s genuinely hilarious gags — though not the wonderful fake charity song featuring Bono, Sting and Elton John. But you will also have been spared the smug self-regard and sourness that has replaced the freshness and genuine creativity of Baron Cohen’s earlier work.