Early in “Bruno” — the exceedingly vulgar, borderline traumatizing and altogether hilarious mockumentary starring Sacha Baron Cohen — the title character manages to screen a pilot of his celebrity news program for a focus group in California. The men and women watch in horror as Bruno gyrates in skimpy clothes, proposes that Jamie Lynn Spears’ unborn baby be aborted and flails his flaccid member to the pulsing beats of Eurotrash techno. Bruno later sits in a hallway, despondent, as he reads the feedback: “It was worse than cancer.”
That seems to summarize the reaction a helluva lot of American filmgoers have to “Bruno.” (Receipts on its opening weekend dropped day by day, suggesting bad word-of-mouth; at a recent evening showing at the Rave, no fewer than a half-dozen people walked out, from an audience that was far from full to begin with.) There’s nothing Cohen and director Larry Charles won’t infiltrate, lampoon and sodomize for a cheap laugh: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, vanity, good old-fashioned pratfalls, Hitler jokes. They love a giggle as Michael Bay loves exploding cars or as Russ Meyer loved the letter “D.”
The movie contains a loose story that you could flatter by calling a plot. Bruno, a cartoonishly gay Austrian fashion reporter, gets himself blacklisted from shows in Europe and decides his path to fame instead will run through Los Angeles. There he hops between get-famous-quick schemes (adopt an African baby, attempt to broker peace in the Middle East) before deciding that his very homosexuality is to blame for his failures, and sets out for the South to submit to “gay converters” and such man-making activities as rabbit hunting and boot camp.
Anyone familiar with Cohen’s work on “The Ali G Show” or in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (which Charles also directed) by now knows his modus operandi — and seeing as how “Borat” raked in a quarter-billion worldwide, it’s amazing that Cohen still found stooges (Ron Paul and Paula Abdul to name two) to sit for interviews from Bruno. When Cohen looses Bruno on a fashion show, or an airport, or a talk show, or a psychic, or a swingers party, only he and the audience are in on the joke, because the joke of course is on everyone else. The result is guerilla filmmaking that lands somewhere between Michael Moore’s penchant for confrontations and the “Jackass” gang’s affinity for pain. It’s truly stunning that no one ever manages to beat the living hell out of him, because he asks for it at every turn.
But no nihilist series of stunts, this: Cohen and Charles play their vacuous star’s lust for fame brilliantly against Americans’ noxious self-whoring. When Cohen manages to lead a Fort Smith crowd in a chant of “STRAIGHT PRIDE!” or a woman tells him her 30-pound baby can lose 10 pounds to fit his needs for a photo shoot, we’re reminded that this sick bastard of a movie isn’t inventing depravity — it’s cataloging it.