Creating effective social satire is no easy task -- just ask Sacha Baron Cohen. Shortly after scoring a hit in the U.K. with Da Ali G Show, Baron Cohen attempted to translate his unique brand of humor to the big screen with the disastrously unfunny Ali G Indahouse. Conventional narrative form simply didn't fit his spontaneous, on-the-spot style, and in order to remain relevant he was forced to innovate. Fortunately for him, the secret of Baron Cohen's genius was still only known to a (relatively) select few, so when Borat hit the big screen in 2006, most folks were blindsided by the boorish, yet morbidly endearing character. But the same character who also shot Baron Cohen to fame threatened to become his downfall -- these days his schtick isn't nearly as easy to pull off as it was just three years ago, but pull it off he does in Brüno, a boisterous, taboo-smashing satire that establishes its star as the Andy Kaufman of his generation, and nearly earns him an ass-whooping on more than a few occasions. And while legions of Borat converts will be well-prepared for Baron Cohen's fearless, funny-bone-fracturing style, Allen Funt fans may want to bring along some oxygen and a defibrillator just to be safe.
Brüno (Baron Cohen) is the gay "voice of Austrian youth TV," but when his career in haute couture hits the skids, he realizes that his last, best hope for fame is to make it big in Hollywood. Upon arriving in the U.S., his initial instinct is to create a celebrity interview show. Unfortunately, his champagne-soaked test screening goes horribly awry, forcing the flamboyant television host to once again reassess his career. Eventually, Brüno comes to the conclusion that in order to find true success, he needs to go straight. Enlisting the aid of a homosexual rehabilitation specialist, he interviews swingers and testosterone-fueled hunters while attempting to get in touch with his inner heterosexual. When all else fails, Brüno stages an ultimate fighting competition for a rowdy arena of drunken spectators.
To lay out the plot like that, Brüno sounds about as conventional as they come. But make no mistake -- Baron Cohen's comic sensibilities are still as edgy as ever, and while the setup may sound familiar, his delivery (and perhaps more importantly the reactions of his subjects) lends every scene a sense of unpredictability that ranges from hilarious to terrifying -- often within the same minute. With Brüno, Baron Cohen essentially turns a carnival mirror on society, and some people simply aren't going to like what they see. This is satire at its most confrontational and incisive.
In Borat, Baron Cohen exploited Middle America's prejudice toward Middle Easterners in order to highlight the insipidness of our own fame-obsessed culture. It was the perfect medicine delivered at the perfect time. Those with the ability to keep thinking between fits of laughter will recognize that Baron Cohen is attempting a similar goal here, only this time the "enemy" isn't thousands of miles away; he's right here, in our towns, and he could look "just like you or me," as one of Brüno's interview subjects claims. It's ironic that a culture fueled by the art and politics of its gay population can simultaneously celebrate their ideas and condemn their actions. Baron Cohen "gets" the irony, and he isn't afraid to turn it back on us in all of its grotesque absurdity. Much like Borat, Brüno benefits from the fact that we're never quite sure where the fact ends and the fiction begins. By blending "interviews gone awry" with their own artificial plot contrivances, Baron Cohen and his writing team manage to strike a balance that, while familiar, still retains the power to surprise. Their comic sensibilities are as sharp as ever, making Brüno not just a brilliant bit of satire, but quite likely the funniest film of the year.
The only potential problem with Brüno -- aside from the possibility that some folks are going to take its humor at face value -- is the fact that, with this film, Baron Cohen has essentially exhausted his reserves. Ali G and Borat have both had feature films, and with Brüno breaking out onto the big screen, all of his characters have become too widely known to remain effective. Indeed, most of the time, Brüno has to travel to the backwoods in order to find someone who will take the bait, but while that works within the context of Brüno, it may be tough for Baron Cohen to pull off a similar feat in the future. Here's hoping that he doesn't decide to coast on cruise control by appearing in scripted comedies (or, worse yet, becoming a "serious" dramatic actor, as popular comics are often wont to do), and instead continues to challenge his fans with the same comedic zeal that made him an international success.