When you've had a success that was huge, inflammatory, and controversial, what do you do for an encore? If you're famous for pushing the envelope, your audience expects you to push it even further the next time around. Borat, the funniest movie of the (admittedly young) 21st century, transformed Sacha Baron Cohen from a cult icon into a mainstream phenomenon. Not since the young Robin Williams raised improvisational comedy's metabolism to warp speed had a performer so radically upped comedy's existential ante. Combining Lenny Bruce's capacity to cross forbidden lines, Andy Kaufman's disturbing blurring of the divide between reality and artifice, South Park's full-frontal assault on political correctness, and the Farrelly brothers' ability to turn gross-out humor into enormous grosses, this Cambridge-educated British clown breached boundaries most comics wouldn't go near—for fear of their lives. Borat was comedy as a game of metaphysical chicken. Baron Cohen didn't just risk "dying" onstage; his provocations risked actual life and limb. (Story continued below...)
Well, no. Borat had more than its share of scandalously jaw-dropping moments, but most of the time you felt the provocations—whether it was the Pamplona-inspired "running of the Jews" or Borat stirring up a crowd at a rodeo with his bloodthirsty warmongering—had a sharp satirical purpose. Is it being a spoilsport to expect the gags to have a point? Outrageousness just for the sake of outrage isn't satire—it's Jackass. And when the sequences are obviously staged, like the early scene in which Brüno and his "pygmy" Asian boy toy engage in gymnastics involving seriously alarming sex toys, you don't even get that vicarious Jackass thrill of watching real people perpetrating idiotic (but real) damage to themselves.
Gross-out humor, which was a staple of '80s and '90s teen comedies and reached its commercial apotheosis in There's Something About Mary, was in danger of burning itself out in ever more desperate displays of sexual humiliation when Baron Cohen, in Da Ali G Show and in Borat, crossbred the genre with cinéma vérité and reality TV, and invigorated it with a deceptively sophisticated political edge. On HBO, the flamboyantly narcissistic Brüno put himself in perilous situations that exposed homophobia with hilarious, daredevil wit. In short doses, Brüno was a triumph. At feature length, Brüno—who comes to America with the goal of becoming a celebrity after being "schwarzlisted" in Europe for disrupting a major fashion show in Milan—threatens to wear out his one-note welcome.
The naive, anti-Semitic Borat had a guileless idiocy that made him, against all odds, endearing. There was even a touch of pathos in his loony romantic obsession with Pamela Anderson. The silly, self-absorbed Brüno is a more predatory character. When he puts the moves on a freaked-out Ron Paul, who is tricked into sitting for an interview allegedly about Austrian economics, Baron Cohen elicits the requisite homophobic reaction: Paul nastily curses the "queer" as he flees the scene. But what straight or gay man wouldn't be put off by this vapid, ass-wriggling Austrian's seduction? This has got to be one of the most uncomfortable scenes in any comedy anywhere, and the aftertaste is anything but triumphant. Watching Borat, you felt that most of his victims had it coming. Here, you're not always so sure.
Baron Cohen has trapped himself in a double bind: his intent is to root out homophobia, but to do so, he has to stir it up. (In fact, people at the filming of various episodes complain that Brüno riled up his victims offscreen in even more offensive ways than we see: throwing T shirts with pictures of naked men into one crowd, telling another that if a child of his turned out to be heterosexual, he would be disowned, etc.) I pooh-poohed the protests of many gay organizations about Brüno before I saw it, just as I felt the Jewish protests against Borat were missing the joke and underestimating the audience. I don't doubt Baron Cohen's honorable intentions, but parts of Brüno made me wonder if the protesters didn't have a point.
Which is not to say that you won't laugh—sometimes hard—at Baron Cohen's new movie. There are inspired moments when Brüno travels to the Middle East and brings together Israelis and Palestinians in a peacemaking attempt. Unfortunately, the dimwitted fashionista doesn't understand the difference between Hamas and hummus. Here, and in many of the movie's most effective sequences, Brüno is essentially a gay surrogate of Ali G, his deliberately clueless interrogations eliciting illuminating and astonishing responses. When he interviews stage parents and asks them what they would be willing to allow their kids to do to get a part, the answers are horrifying—and hilarious. This is Baron Cohen in fine form. But the Brüno who asks these pointedly dumb questions isn't the same Brüno who destroys a fashion show by wearing a Velcro suit or asks celebrities such as Paula Abdul to conduct an interview using a Mexican gardener as a chair. (A similar scene with LaToya Jackson was cut after her brother's death.) As a character, Brüno lacks Borat's internal consistency: it makes no sense that Brüno would put on a beard and pretend to be a macho wrestler—one who plants a lusty kiss on his opponent's lips to elicit hateful reactions from the beer-swilling crowd. Brüno wouldn't do that—Sacha Baron Cohen would. (And will anybody think it's news that that crowd isn't gay-friendly?)
Baron Cohen is, without doubt, the ballsiest comic of his generation—and one of the brightest. But it's hard to imagine him taking the guerrilla shock tactics of Borat and Brüno any further. Outrage works best as a means, not an end, and somewhere between Brüno's giant dildos and anal bleachings his tactics have run out of steam. Great dirty comedy can leave you elated—Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor had that gift of rude catharsis, and so does Baron Cohen at his best. But if Borat felt like it was opening daring new doors, Brüno feels like the end of this particular road. His methods—how he pulls off his stunts and dupes his victims—have become more interesting than the results. Something's amiss when you realize you'd rather be watching a documentary on the making of Brüno than the thing itself. His next comic assault will require a radical reinvention.