Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten. Directed by Larry Charles. Rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language. 83 minutes.
Back in the early 1980s, comedian Andy Kaufman declared himself the greatest inter-gender wrestler in the world and challenged any woman to try to defeat him in the ring. He was obnoxious, egging on the crowd into openly hating him. It was all an act with Kaufman’s performance art being in just how far he could push the audiences buttons before they would realize it was obviously a joke. It turned out he could go pretty far.
Kaufman, alas, is no longer with us – he died in 1984 – but Sacha Baron Cohen has demonstrated himself an able successor. In 2006, his character “Borat” inflicted himself on unsuspecting Americans, pretending to be a documentary maker from Kazakhstan. This time he is Brüno, a nineteen-year-old gay fashion model from Austria with a similarly obtuse attitude towards behaving appropriately.
At the start of the film, Brüno is enjoying his flamboyant lifestyle. He finds himself banned from the fashion world when he shows up to a show wearing a suit made out of Velcro and things start sticking to him. He goes to America, with his assistant’s assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), looking to become a celebrity.
For all the focus on whether this caricature is good or bad for the image of gay men, the real focus of the movie is the nature of celebrity: who has it, how one gets it, and what one is willing to put up with to maintain it. When he gets a shot at doing a pilot for an interview show, Lutz lines up Paula Abdul as guest but neglects to arrange for the furniture. When she arrives she’s asked to seat herself on a Mexican pool man kneeling on the floor, and does so, not taking offense until another one is brought out as the buffet table.
It’s hard to say when people are in on the joke. The host of a Dallas TV show presumably knew what was going on when Brüno was booked as a guest, but his audience clearly did not. The shocked looks on their faces as he gets more and more outrageous make you anticipate what will finally be that step too far. Congressman (and erstwhile presidential candidate) Ron Paul clearly did not know what was coming when Brüno maneuvers him into his hotel bedroom and starts getting undressed.
As with “Borat,” there are plenty of outrageous moments that will make you simultaneously laugh and squirm, amazed at how people react when confronted with Brüno’s antics. The most shocking moments are when we see real people willing to do anything for their own chance for celebrity from agreeing to his increasingly bizarre demands to get their toddlers cast in a film he’s supposedly making to people at a swinger’s orgy engaging in sex on camera, obscured only by a strategically placed black box.
“Brüno” will not be for every taste and its R rating is well earned. For those willing to enter the strange world of Sacha Baron Cohen, though, it is a very entertaining trip.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.