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On movies: 'Bruno' is crude, but not much more

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2009 - The title character of "Bruno" is shockingly crude, suicidally solipsistic, astonishingly narcissistic and prone to hauling out oversized dildos (manual and mechanical, in a variety of colors) at the drop of a cleansing agent. He's not the kind of man you'd want to marry your brother.

In case you missed the countless commercials that have been fouling the airwaves for the past few weeks, "Bruno" is the latest filmic creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, the British television comedian who made millions from his last flick, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." The new movie has an even longer secondary title that I will spare you.

Bruno is an outrageously homosexual European TV fashion personality who is on a tour of America, bent on becoming the most famous Austrian "since Hitler." Like Borat, Bruno is played by Cohen, who seems to have become a franchise.

The central premise of both movies is that someone pretending to be stupid can make stupid people say stupid things, although I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in the first movie when Borat got three Southern frat boys falling-down drunk on beer-and-whisky shooters and couldn't entrap them into saying anything more outrageous than "In America, the minorities are on top." That's too mild for even the McLaughlin Report, much less a theoretically no-holds-barred expose of America's slimy right-wing underbelly. There are shocks in "Borat," but few surprises. Is it supposed to be news that the wrinkle-faced honcho of a rodeo can be goaded by an actor pretending to be a spectacularly bigoted foreigner into making remarks that slur minority groups?

I had the same feeling of dashed expectations with "Bruno," coupled with the sense that, this time at least, almost everything was staged, with lock-tight releases signed and money distributed ahead of time, with the general understanding that Bruno was going to act weird and offensive and people would just play along with the gag. Otherwise, I'm afraid, those three "Deliverance" types who took Bruno on an overnight hunting trip would have blasted him all the way back to Vienna the first time he tried to crawl naked into one of their sleeping bags.

And the final scene of the movie - a raucously surrealistic and sometimes very funny exhibition of homoeroticism inside an arena fighting cage -- would have turned out very badly for Cohen and the actor who was playing his love-sick assistant. That cage did not appear to be locked.

Like Borat, Bruno spends most of his time disturbing the peace in the Deep South and Texas, presumably on the typically European assumption that down there is where the real homophobes reside. Has he checked the election returns from California recently?

In a scene that is cringe inducing without being particularly funny, Bruno shows up on a Texas daytime television show with a black baby ("Like Madonna and Angelina"). Bruno claims to have traded an I-Pod for the baby, which he says he has named "O.J.," and the audience, which is largely black, starts attacking him. Pretty soon it's clear Cohen's intent is not to make fun of Angelina Jolie or Madonna - Cohen reportedly sent the singer flowers to smooth over possibly ruffled tail feathers -- but to make fun of the audience. The appearance concludes with a clearly fraudulent set-up that calls the authenticity of the whole episode into question.

Most of the comedy in Cohen's films is supposed to come from the fact the characters he plays are confronting real people and goading them into acting like themselves, only more so. In both "Borat" and "Bruno," there are clearly some complicated multiple-camera set-ups that suggest there was nothing impromptu or unstaged about most of the encounters. An exception might be the momentary scene in "Bruno" in which Harrison Ford rebuffs Bruno on the street with the only kind of language Bruno understands.

"Bruno" has its funny moments, although I confess that I thought the funniest bit in the movie was one of the few clean gags - Bruno designs himself a suit entirely made out of Velcro, and finds he can't get out of the back seat of his limo. And some of the segments with Christian counselors who specialize in converting gays to heterosexuality are interesting, in a strange way almost touching, more quaint than funny.

Plus, there is no question that the movie is thoroughly outrageous, but usually not because of what Cohen and the people he encounters say. It's outrageous because it is so explicitly filthy - Cohen must have had quite an interesting time squeezing an "R" rating out of the movie review board on "Bruno," with its waving penises and obsession with anal sex.

What appears to have happened between "Borat" and "Bruno" is that Sacha Baron Cohen pretty much gave up on satire, having discovered that there is a lot more money in slapstick, particularly if it's in the nude.

Opens Friday, July 10

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.