Presumably, Baron Cohen hoped to mine the same motherlode of wit with Brüno; it followed a similar formula—encounters with real people. But Brüno is the story of a gay man as an oblivious narcissist. In this role, Baron Cohen is isolated in his narcissism and he gets laughs by making a fool of himself. Brüno is obscene cartoon humor—not the comedy of a wise fool. It is even unclear whether it is a send-up of gay men or of homophobes.
Although Brüno, as of this writing, has earned more than $100 million, the only record it set at the box office is in the drastic decline of moviegoers from the first night to the second (first-nighters dissing the film on the new technology of Twitter is allegedly responsible). I went the second night hoping to enjoy Brüno with a large live audience but found only about 25 others in the theater. Rather than laughing in spite of myself, I felt alone, disgusted, ashamed for being there, and sorry for Baron Cohen who seemed trapped rather than liberated by his character. A few young voices shrieked with laughter from time to time. One young woman apparently thought what I shall call the dance-of-the-large-Caucasian-penis was hysterically funny. But she seemed to be the only one.
Baron Cohen, who becomes Ali G and Borat with complete ease, seems to strain at the role of Brüno. Baron Cohen’s humor is always meant to go beyond the boundaries of bad taste and make you squirm and wince, but to make you laugh, the wise fool must convey a kind of comfort in his innocence. Baron Cohen does not achieve that with Brüno. There are, in fact, moments when he seems quite uncomfortable.
Much of the Brüno humor involved dildos and anal intercourse. Baron Cohen has his own anus bleached on camera at a Hollywood establishment that apparently provides this service. It was, of course, meant to be shocking, but Brüno seemed more the victim of the joke than the jokester, the man who will do anything for a laugh rather than the fool who holds a mirror up to the hypocrisy of the world. The most sympathetic interpretation of Brüno is that the dance of the penis and other shocking moments expose the homophobia of Americans.
Perhaps, but in one plot twist, having failed to become famous as a gay man, Brüno decides to go straight. In his efforts, Brüno attends a swingers party, so we get glimpses of heterosexual porn as well as gay porn. This is more peep show than mirror. The episode ends with a “real” dominatrix whipping Brüno to get him to remove his last jockstrap. Unfortunately, Baron Cohen does not seem to be acting. He looks pained.
Brüno has the feel of a pastiche created by a group of comedy insiders competing to outshock each other. Baron Cohen seems to be the victim of what they produced. There are, of course, critics and millions of people who will find Brüno funny. But they will not be laughing at the humor of a wise fool. This comedy does not use wit to get past your superego. It appeals to audiences willing to check their superegos at the door and embrace the thrill of public obscenity.