June 29, 2009 / 2:16 AM / 10 years ago

"Bruno" is Borat-lite, and a little tedious

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - We all knew Borat. Borat was a friend of ours. Bruno, you’re no Borat.

British actor Sacha Baron Cohen, dressed as a bull, attends the Spanish premiere of his film "Bruno" outside Madrid's Las Ventas bullring June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Juan Medina )

Unfair to be sure, but because everyone is going to compare Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” to his insanely funny “Borat,” let’s be honest: While pushing the PC envelope in new and imaginative ways as well as the MPAA’s R rating, especially insofar as the male member is concerned, “Bruno” is only intermittently funny and all too often the “ambushes” of celebrities and civilians look staged. The movie is even a tad — dare we say it? — tedious.

Admirers of the British comic’s gifts for caricature and improvisation and nearly everyone who found themselves laughing uncontrollably at Baron Cohen’s unrepentant anti-Semitic Kazakhstani in “Borat” probably will turn out for Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles’ latest mockumentary. So boxoffice should be solid for Universal’s July 10 release. It’s unclear though whether Baron Cohen can continue to bring his TV characters into the real world, or something approximating it, without diminishing results. Based on the evidence here, such results seem inevitable.

For one thing, where the focus was laser-sharp in “Borat,” it’s fuzzy in “Bruno.” Bruno, for those really out of step with modern culture, is Baron Cohen’s gay Austrian fashion expert with his own TV show, “Funkyzeit.” Early in the movie, Bruno makes such a disastrous spectacle of himself at a designer’s show during Milan Fashion Week, he is schwarz-listed.

He abruptly decides to go to Los Angeles, accompanied by his lovelorn assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), to become a celebrity. One’s heart sinks right there. “Borat” zeroed in on bigotry and Western hypocrisy for its satire. The target of Hollywood and vacuous celebrityhood has so many quivers in its bull’s-eye, there is nothing left to hit.

Perhaps a victim of his own success, Baron Cohen probably is too well know to get away with so many sneak attacks on unsuspecting people no matter how he transforms himself physically. A few times in “Bruno,” one senses a real victim. More often, especially with such demi-celebrities as Paula Abdul or LaToya Jackson but even with a determined dominatrix, one senses a more than willing victim.

In a recording session that ends the film, where everyone from Elton John to Snoop Dogg to Sting to Bono shows up, the film drops any pretense that these are not invited guests.

Baron Cohen has better luck outside of L.A. In the Middle East, Bruno does get chased by angry Hasidic Jews. And in trying to mediate a panel featuring an Israeli and Palestinian leader, his mixing up of Hamas and hummus is genuinely funny.

Bruno’s adopted African baby paraded before a black audience is not funny. It’s embarrassing, as is any joke that bombs, yet the comic keeps going back to it nevertheless. This is one of several instances where an audience might experience both exasperation and tedium with the comic’s relentless act of running a joke into the ground.

Bruno’s attempt to go hetero, assisted by two Christian ministers who specialize in such conversions, yields better results. Even here, though, Bill Maher beat him to the punch with “Religulous.”

Borat was, despite his cheerful bigotry, somehow a lovable character. His questions sprang from the sweet innocence of a third-world bumpkin wallowing in isolated ignorance. With Bruno, you mostly feel annoyed. A gay Austrian fashionista would be no ignorant rube. He would be sophisticated, savvy and certainly aware of prejudices against gays. Would he really prance semi-naked through Middle Eastern holy sights?

The calculations behind Baron Cohen’s ambushes too often are mean-spirited. We sense, as we never did with Borat, the comic behind the character. Especially when his accent keeps changing — from an unconvincing Austrian to his own British and even to a whisper of Borat himself.

Consequently, the character’s gayness reads false. Baron Cohen needs to spend more time in certain gay bars if he wants to learn how to do “flamboyant” and “fabulous.” It’s a ghost of the real thing.

Tech credits are just fine for what essentially is an un-reality show.

(Editing by Dean Gooodman at Reuters)

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