Prank comedians are their own worst enemies. For traditional movie comedians, success opens doors: access to greater budgets, less studio meddling, finer actors to select a cast from. But a prank comedian lives and dies by his anonymity and, in Baron Cohen's particular case, his ability to convince ordinary people to let their guard down and reveal their innate prejudices and idiocies. His Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan grossed over $125 million dollars in the United States, in one fell swoop turning its title character into a household name and destroying his viability as a social commentator and trickster.
Which is to say it must not have been easy for Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles to make another movie after Borat. Their follow-up film, Brüno, certainly doesn't look like it was easy to make. Hell, at times it looks down right hazardous. How hazardous? Put it this way: the scene where Baron Cohen suggests to an apparently legitimate terrorist that Osama bin Laden should shave his beard because he looks like a "dirty wizard" is only the third most dangerous situation the actor puts himself in in service of his art. There's one moment where I wagered "Brüno" stood a damn good chance of getting shot in the woods, and another where an unruly, drunken mob nearly takes his head off with a chair. As a provocateur, Baron Cohen is beyond fearless.
Yet as a filmmaker, he's surprisingly timid. The narrative of Brüno is little more than a Mad Lib of Borat with the new lead character's name inserted into all the Proper Noun blanks and "homophobia" in exchange for "anti-Semitism." In both films, Baron Cohen's bumbling, nudity-prone protagonist journeys across America with a dimwitted assistant, crossing paths with low-level celebrities and ignorant Southerners. Whatever differences existed between the Brüno and Borat characters from their shared tenure on television's Da Ali G Show have basically vanished, right down to Brüno's mockery of the cruelty and stupidity of the fashion world, all of which is essentially scuttled after a terrific early setpiece where Brüno, wearing a suit made entirely out of Velcro, causes havoc at a Milan runway show.
Instead, the film becomes a vehicle for an exploration of modern American attitudes toward homosexuality, both onscreen and off. Some find Baron Cohen's characterization of Brüno offensive; in an article on Salon, David Rakoff calls him "a gay minstrel." After opening his review by calling Brüno "one of the worst films of the year," At the Movies' Ben Mankiewicz said "He's demonstrating these people's homophobia but in the process he's behaving in the exact way these people think about gay men." Isn't that the point? All of Baron Cohen's characters are outlandish stereotypes deployed to expose American ignorance and prejudice. Where was all this outrage when the (glorious) nation of Kazakhstan took umbrage at Baron Cohen's less-than-positive depiction of their populace? From my perspective, the best stuff in Brüno is the material about homophobia. The first half is uneven; mostly uninspired satires of celebrity culture, like a disappointing sequence where the character plays an extra on a TV courtroom drama and another featuring an almost certainly staged encounter with Paula Abdul. The closest the film gets to achieving the old Ali G Show magic are the sequences that set the hero loose on gay "converters" or a surprisingly uptight swingers party, and Baron Cohen can skewer their self-righteousness, bigotry, and hypocrisy.
I have no inside knowledge of Brüno's production, but if I had to guess, I'd bet that Baron Cohen and writing partners Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer, and Peter Baynham schemed up the jokes first and then wrote a narrative around them that could be added in post-production via voiceover (I'd also wager Baron Cohen got recognized a lot more this time around, scuttling some planned skits that had to be replaced with less thematically appropriate material). But Baron Cohen's contemporaries, the Jackass crew, never bothered to gussy up their art for the silver screen by trying to string their gags together with a story. They just threw together they best jokes they could: all killer, no filler style. If Baron Cohen couldn't do more than recycle his last film's story, he would have been wise to follow their lead, a lesson he should have learned after his mostly narrative (and mostly disastrous) first feature, Ali G Indahouse. Instead, Brüno feels like a standard Hollywood sequel a rehash of the first movie with bigger setpieces and more sex and violence from an artist we've come to expect unique and original things from. If you want more than that from Brüno, I'm afraid the joke's on you.