How far can you go? Put that question to Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen's flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista, and he would most likely provide you with an explicit demonstration involving sex toys and human orifices.
That far. Now the subject of his own mockumentary, Brüno doesn't so much push the envelope as tear it into squares and use it as bog-roll. There are provocations here so inflam-matory they make you wonder how on earth the cast and crew managed to escape with their lives. Like the scene in which a half-naked Brüno parades through an orthodox neighbourhood in Israel and then has to flee a posse of furious Hasidic Jews. Or the scene inwhich he shows off his black baby ('I called him OJ') to a daytime TV audience of outraged African-Americans. Orthe scene in which he goes hunting in thewoods with a trio of rifle-toting good ol' boys whom he tries to seduce in theirtentsafter lights out. The busiest person on the set, you suspect, was Baron Cohen's getaway driver.
This might be a more pertinent question: How far can you go and still be funny? Baron Cohen and his team of writers and producers scored a huge anddeserved hit with their2006comedyBorat, setting the bar of obnoxiousness so high as to seem in constant danger of breaking their necks. Yet Borat, for all his crude antipathies towards Jews, Gypsies, gays and women, was adifferent creature, venturing so deeply into cluelessness and gaucherie that hecameout the other side looking amiable. He was a badly-dressed bumpkin whose journey of discovery to America put a whole new slant on the innocent abroad. What made him so funny was that he managed to be offensive and weirdly charming at the same time.
That trick has not been repeated here. Brüno is possessed of something, but it's definitely not charm. Where Borat seemed ingenuous, Brüno is altogether more knowing, and his avowed career plan – 'I wanna be a shtar in a huge Hollywood movie' – puts us on alert. For starters, he's already got his ownTV fashion show ('Funkyzeit mit Brüno'), so his subsequent naivety about the media – on which the whole comedy is premised – feels utterly bogus. The story begins with Brüno's ostracism from the fashion world after he misbehaves at one of the shows: or, as he puts it, 'For the second time in a century the world had turned on Austria's greatest man, just because he tried something different.' His crypto- Nazi leanings is another unpleasant little dab of character that's designed to alienate. And so, like many a talentless half-wit before him, he heads out for Los Angeles in enthusiastic pursuit of celebrity, accompanied by a slavish personal assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), who happens to love him. In this regard he is surely unique.
Brüno, the film, shares with Borat a fascination with the grotesque distortinglens of fame, with what people, mostly Americans, are prepared to do and say if they know a camera is trained on them. One-time popstar Paula Abdul, for example, is tricked into talking about her charity work, but when she's been invited to sit upon a Latino gardener ('Mexican chair people,' Brüno styles them) for that interview, pieties such as'You give love to other people' have ahollow ring. Brüno, the star, however, keeps scrambling our responses, because he is often more contemptible than the people he sets up. Somehow, hewangles an interview in a hotel room with one-time US Presidential candidate Ron Paul, who eventually storms outofthe place, complaining, quite truthfully, that his interviewer made a pass at him. I found his affronted reaction perfectly understandable. Later, Brüno visits a pastor who specialises in 'converting' gays to the ways of straightness, and seeks advice as to what heterosexual activity he might safely pursue. The pastor's suggestion that he lift weights – 'there's nothing like building up your muscles around other men who aren't gay' – is abjectly laughable, but hisevident sincerity in wanting to help makes him more sympathetic to us than his secret tormentor.
Occasionally, Brüno's wilful ignorance hits the funny bone dead-on. On a visit totheMiddle East he sets up a dialogue between a hard-line Israeli and his Palestinian oppo, with himself in the role of peacemaker (he's heard that's what celebrities do). Typically, Brüno manages to confuse Hamas with hummus, andsoonobliges the Israeli to point out, with amazing forbearance, 'We both agree that hummus is very healthy.' They both agree, announces Brüno – job done! But the dreadful 'peace' song he then sings for them isn't funny at all, and the way he gets the enemies to join hands is horribly embarrassing. (I watched much of this film through latticed fingers). The scene illustrates a notable, and regrettable, weakness in the film-makers' mindset – it's the point at which humour edges almost into nihilism. Nothing has any meaning outside of mockery; ours is a world of vanity and gullibility, goes the thinking, so let's just keep poking a stick at it. There's something joyless about this perspective, and it's oddly exhausting, too. Some might find the contrivance ingenious – how, for instance, did they manage to get Brünoinside a swingers' orgy? Was that dominatrix for real? But when you start puzzling over the the complicity involved the joke withers and dies.
This isn't to say that Brüno will not beamassive hit. There's an appetite for 'out-there' comedy, and the 18 certificate the film has been awarded will tip the wink to audiences: if you thought Borat (only a 15) was outrageous... Of course, there are laughs, and if audacity were the only principle by which film-making achievement were judged the movie would be a knockout. But having groaned and winced through most of its 83 minutes I couldn't wait to get out of there.