Sacha Baron Cohen is, without doubt, a comedian with balls. In Bruno, his latest feature-length adaptation of one of his three characters from The Ali G Show, the Peter Sellers of the 21st century puts himself in such absurd and sometimes unbelievably real situations that result in him, at various points within the film, being whipped mercilessly by a dominatrix, walking past a “God Hates Fags” protest held by Fred Phelps’s notorious Westboro Baptist Church while helplessly locked in S&M paraphernalia with another man, flamboyantly roaming the Middle East, and finally, making out with another man in a cage match while a shocked and angry audience throw increasingly large objects at him. Throughout all these ordeals, Cohen remains thoroughly and consistently enmeshed as Bruno, never once breaking character even as the situations escalate to absurd proportions. Cohen is a brilliantly talented comedian who has raised the bar of expectations for comedic performance—he may even be the first method comedian. And many of the setups within Bruno are undeniably brilliant, but unfortunately, and very disappointingly, the execution and follow-through simply doesn’t match the talent involved.
As with the feature-length adaptation of Borat, Bruno incorporates the prank-reality situations and setups into a manufactured and scripted narrative, allowing each comic episode to be a part of the character’s overall journey. After a disastrous turn of events at a European fashion show involving Bruno’s all-Velcro suit, the Austrian fashionista is exiled from the fashion world, and then decides to travel to Los Angeles to become famous, where he tries out as an extra for the show Medium, creates an outrageous American version of his fashion show which (to say the least) disturbs an unwitting test audience, adopts and exploits an African child, goes to the Middle East intending to become kidnapped, and even tries to convert himself to straightness. But the attempted crux of the film is Bruno’s off-and-on relationship with his assistant.
But Bruno becomes encumbered by its strained attempts at integrating all these episodes into a forward-moving trajectory for its title character, as if the film is trying to be a character piece rather than a collection of comic setpieces simply involving the same character. In Borat, the “plot” incorporating that title character’s journey to find Pamela Anderson was more an excuse for his comic ramblings across America and a way for the film to end with a climactic prank involving the actress rather than an actual attempt at a cohesive narrative. The unwritten contract between audience and filmmakers in that film assumed that both sets of people understood that movies like these don’t need plots, and all people really want to see is Borat involved in various comic episodes. With Bruno, the plotting is heavier and more deliberate, resulting in far more scripted moments than its predecessor, distracting from the real comic draw in these films (his interaction with real, unassuming people) and making it difficult to distinguish between what is scripted and what is real. The plotting of Bruno feels invasive rather than a convenient way to tie these setpieces together, and what the filmmakers don’t seem to understand is that the audience doesn’t need an excuse for Bruno to go to any of these places. And this extensive plotting doesn’t even pay off, as the movie finds no other way to end itself than a blandly unfunny celebrity-filled charity song, a cliché that should be far beneath Cohen displaying a depressing sign of a lack of inspiration.
Making the distinction between real and scripted even more difficult to distinguish is the fact that Bruno clearly has much higher production value than Borat, which sacrifices Borat’s on-the-go, improvisatory feel that made the crazy reality of its situations seem all the more real. Bruno looks too sleek and refined to give off the same feeling of immediacy, and thus many of its comic situations lose their intended shock value.
But Bruno’s biggest problem is in the overall execution of these real moments, and perhaps this problem can be best exemplified with a description of the character’s interview with former pop star and American Idol judge Paula Abdul. Like in many moments of Bruno, the comic setup itself is brilliant. Bruno invites Abdul into an empty rented house, where the only furniture he has provided are Mexican laborers crouched on their hands and knees. In Cohen’s wonderful critical and satirical fashion, Bruno convinces Abdul to sit on the “furniture” while she talks about her charity work. But the meeting is cut short when a tray of entrees are brought out, served on another Mexican laborer’s bare body, and Abdul abruptly leaves. The setup is genius, but Cohen never seems to give these situations enough time to breathe, follow through, and reach their real comic potential before he pulls out the truly absurd that predictably forces his interview subjects to abandon ship.
In The Ali G Show, Cohen allowed all his characters to bring out the absurd in a deliberate slow burn fashion, extending each joke for all its potential comic gold. Cohen had patience as the Bruno of the show, allowing his interview subjects to trust him before making them feel uncomfortable. The Bruno of the film, however, seems hurried to take each situation from A to Z, as if his goal is to get his unwitting subjects to leave the situation as soon as possible. Same holds true for his interview with a member of a terrorist organization and his attempted seduction of Ron Paul. Both are brilliant situations, but one can’t help but feel that there was something funnier to be mined within them, that Cohen didn’t play them for all the potential therein. The setups themselves are far funnier than how Cohen uses them.
Will Bruno make you laugh throughout? Probably. Will moments of it shock and appall you? Most likely. Has Cohen retained his reputation as one of the most talented and daring comedians of this, or any, era? Absolutely. But will you leave feeling that there could have been a funnier Bruno movie somewhere out there? I certainly did.