2 out of 4 stars
As genuinely talented as he is, Sacha Baron Cohen - at least as a "mockumentarian" - is a one-trick pony. "Brüno" is the third feature film based on a character from Cohen's short-lived HBO program "Da Ali G Show" and is by far the weakest of bunch.
Exuding bad taste and pushing people's emotional hot buttons is the type of thing that will work once or maybe twice, but anything more comes of as strained, unimaginative, desperate and repetitive. There's nothing seen in the copycat "Brüno" that wasn't done far better in the 2006 movie "Borat."
The new movie's principal Achilles' heel isn't so much its recycled approach and outrageous sight gags as it is the obnoxious temperament and self-serving air of its title character.
Cohen's Borat was an unrestrained, unfiltered and overly gregarious Eastern European reporter who despite his grating approach was still able to project a slight measure of charm and innocence, if not ignorant whimsy. Compared to Brüno, Borat comes off looking like Mr. Rogers.
With more than a passing resemblance to the trolling Hollywood gossip monger Steven Cojocaru, Brüno is an openly gay Austrian fashionista whose bull-in-a-china-shop antics lead to permanent industry banishment. Horrified at the idea of no longer being famous, Brüno engages himself and a fawning assistant in an escalating series of bizarre, attention-seeking stunts.
By sticking with essentially the same blueprint outline and ambush/guerilla style of "Borat," Cohen and director Larry Charles show little in the way of a fresh presentation. More often than not, the movie more resembles a well-choreographed, live-action spoof than the intended on-the-fly documentary. Brüno's assorted interviewees react to him in a calculated and rehearsed manner which suggests they could very well be actors and not clueless "regular people." Four segments where Brüno is seen trying to go "hetero" perfectly fit this description.
Even when the filmmakers deliver something good, they make the mistake of sticking with it too long. One such episode has Brüno aping Angelina Jolie by adopting an African baby for false humanitarian/PR reasons. He trots the child (named O.J.) on to the stage of the "Richard Bey Show" and succeeds in completely infuriating the mostly black audience. Cutting this portion of the film in half would have had a much more visceral impact.
The movie isn't totally lacking in humor and Cohen solidly hits his mark when sharing the screen with real-life personalities. While passages including Paula Abdul and Harrison Ford are far too brief, another including former presidential-hopeful Ron Paul goes far in showing that some people are as shameless and desperate as Brüno when it comes to getting attention and remaining in the public spotlight. In a scant three minutes Cohen and Charles effectively ruin any future chances of Paul ever again being taken seriously as a presidential candidate.
Having exhausted his three stock characters from the HBO show, it's now time for Cohen to move on. After totally stealing Will Ferrell's thunder during his few scenes in "Talladega Nights," Cohen has shown us he has more than enough wherewithal and creative juice to become a live-action comedy mainstay within a genre that is in desperate need of new blood. With his darkly exotic features and an imposing, towering gait, Cohen might also have a career in any number of dramatic bad-guy roles.
If "Brüno" does even half as much at the box-office as "Borat," Cohen will have the power and clout to do anything he wants. Hopefully he'll seize that opportunity to grow artistically upward and not remain creatively stagnant. (Universal)