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A scene from the comedy Bruno about a gay Austrian fashion reporter starring Sasha Baron Cohen.

2 out of 4 stars


Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer and Jeff Schaffer

Directed by Larry Charles

Starring Sacha Baron Cohen

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Classification: 18A

Brüno is likely to be the funniest thing you'll see on a screen this summer.

Which is precisely its problem: it's a thing , not a movie - if, that is, you believe a movie should be more than an accumulation of prankish set-pieces flimsily strung over 80 skimpy minutes.

Some of these rude 'n' crude set-pieces are brilliant, but they can't disguise the fact that Brüno' s well-springs derive more from TV's Candid Camera than from the writing of Voltaire or Swift, or from the antics of such conceptual/performance artists as Yoko Ono and Vito Acconci. Star Sacha Baron Cohen, in fact, is a sort of Allen Funt Redux, though X-rated and raw - a grating Briton out to poke and prod the prejudices, fears and wounds of 21st-century America while daring his audiences to laugh at the shock of recognition.

You probably saw Baron Cohen do this three years ago in Borat when he played a misogynistic, anti-Semitic, Gypsy-hating bumpkin from Kazakhstan on a zig-zag romp through the United States to win the, er, hand of Pamela Anderson. This time it's another of his creations for the Paramount Comedy Channel - Brüno (pronounced Broo-no), the ultra-priapic gay Austrian fashion reporter with the feathery Peter Tork-style bangs- who leaves Europe for America, arschenhaller und kugelsacks at the ready, to become "the second biggest Austrian superstar since Adolf Hitler."

Much ink already has been spilled and air-time exhausted on whether Brüno is pro- or anti-gay. Or, more precisely, are its outrages an incitement to homophobia even as they appear to lampoon it?

Feel free to join the debate. But if you do, be prepared to have your mind as pretzelled as some of the sexual positions Brüno undertakes with his tiny, perfect assistant Diesel (Clifford Banagale). As this movie amply demonstrates, Baron Cohen is first and foremost an equal-opportunity offender. The only stand he takes is on his own two feet, his one allegiance his absurdist vision. High-brow? Low-brow? No-brow? Anti? Pro? The slaps and shticks of Baron Cohen's humour come so fast and furious that your conscience simply isn't quick enough to form any real resistance or fine discriminations.

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What is indisputable is the man's (yes) courage - his frisky, risky embrace of flamboyance as a weapon of cultural confrontation. Brüno is studded with examples: Baron Cohen wandering bare-chested and in black hot pants in a Hasid neighbourhood in Jerusalem; Baron Cohen on a backwoods hunting expedition with the reddest necks in Alabama; Baron Cohen staring at the enhanced breasts of a naked dominatrix at a decidedly sinister suburban swingers' party and telling her, "You must produce a lot of milk"; Baron Cohen on a Florida TV talk show informing the all-black audience that, in exchange for an iPod in Africa, he was able to adopt a son whom he intends to give "a traditional African name - O.J."

As with Borat, the film's most bravura sequence occurs near its conclusion. Earlier, we've seen Brüno join Cockaholics Anonymous, convinced that he has to "go straight" if he wants the fame enjoyed by heterosexual celebrities such as Kevin Spacey, Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Eight months later, he shows up for a cage wrestling match in Arkansas, billed as Straight Dave. "I'm so straight that when I bought my house I boarded up the back door," he tells an appreciative crowd lubricated on $1-a-glass beer.

Then someone in the bleachers calls out "Faggot!" whereupon Straight Dave invites the slanderer to enter the cage to receive his comeuppance.

Dave's opponent turns out to be his former lover, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), whom Brüno abandoned for being insufficiently "hot" in looks and fashion-sense. The two begin to flip and flop on the mat, the crowd roaring its support for Dave's expected triumph.

In all the friction, the duo discovers that love - or lust at least - is stronger than any gay conversion program: in short order they're "so excited to be reunited." The crowd, bewildered at first, quickly turns hostile. Boos (and much else) start to rain down, yet Lutz's and Brüno's horizontal mambo continues obliviously on (and on).

It's simultaneously hilarious and not a little frightening. In fact, it took me back to Borat (the rodeo scene in particular) where I genuinely feared for the star's life: The man's shamelessness provokes shame in others, and this can be a dangerous thing.

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More than once while watching Brüno, I thought Baron Cohen just might end up being the first comedian ever killed on the job. But for that terrible possibility to be "entertained," he'll have to make another movie in the Borat/Brüno mode - a feat perhaps more easily talked about than accomplished if, as it seems now, the world is wised-up to his methods.

Still, Baron Cohen is nothing if not resourceful. And lest we forget, as familiar and formulaic as its episodes appeared, Candid Camera lasted from 1948 to 1990.

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