Borat was the spastically hilarious reflection of Bush: a blundering bigot who exposed the sorts of blundering bigots who elect blundering bigots to public office. If Sacha Baron Cohen made money — and his fame — in large part by duping hicks,* it was cool, since his exploitation of the purportedly ignorant was done in the name of DailyShow–ish comedy for the greater liberal good. And, in 2006, it was cathartically fun to make fun of American ass-hats.
Brüno seems to want to go further. [Sorry, but everything below is a big SPOILER.] As David Edelstein has pointed out, the movie exists to satirize homophobia just as gay marriage is in the public eye. Goading and agitating, Baron Cohen stacks the deck relentlessly and hammers some easy targets, but the homophobia rarely erupts. And while this might be a comic failure, it becomes an almost Obama-like success — reminding us that there’s not such a difference between red-staters and blue-staters after all.
Despite the lunacy of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," an extremely dull visit to a military base turns up almost no usable film. The drill sergeants are straight from central casting: predictable, professional, and clearly aware of the joke. Baron Cohen punks a few of Hollywood’s most obviously insane celebs, like Paula Abdul, but less creatively than Ashton Kutcher. A focus group reasonably opines that Brüno’s fake TV show, in which he holds up celebrity sonograms and asks "Keep It?" or "Abort It?," is an awful idea.
Then Baron Cohen heads to the woods with hunters (i.e. red-state rednecks who surely harbor horrible, hick hatreds). In the forest, Brüno minces, he prances, he makes all sorts of ludicrous sexual passes and insulting jokes. (I shudder to think of the taunting left on the cutting-room floor.) The guys? They just quietly stare into the campfire, refusing to take the bait, until Brüno invades one guy’s tent, buck-naked, in the middle of the night. At which point the guy tells him to leave. Here were three guys being pranked for a Universal Pictures blockbuster and insulted to their faces — and they were polite to the point of absurdity. I wanted to give them a big flannel-y hug.
Baron Cohen’s absurdist comedy is spastic and hilarious as ever, but the social commentary just seems more patronizing, staged, and ineffective. More and more, the Cambridge grad’s films are looking like a vicious travelogue in the vein of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo — only Cohen actively messes with people and wastes their time, instead of wittily denigrating them behind their backs. Compared to the manipulative Baron Cohen, these naïve Joe Six-Packs come off surprisingly well in the film: often patient, generally decent, and, inevitably, used. I often felt sorry for them. Unless they lived in L.A.
When traipsing about Hollywood, Baron Cohen absolutely destroys the people who want to be famous like him — but just aren’t as good at it. In Brüno, every celebrity-craving Californian is an asshole. Parents say they’ll give their toddlers liposuction, or submit them to photo shoots involving “lit phosphorous.” A reality-show vet tells Brüno to, yes, "Abort" that fetus. It’s hard to top the familiar moral bankruptcy of Hollywood, but Brüno does it. So, yes, the movie made me really proud of America for the first time in my adult lifetime of kick-the-hick comedy. But I still hate L.A.
*Full disclosure: I am from North Carolina.
See Also: David Edelstein's review of Brüno; The Cut takes A Look Back at Brüno’s Most Memorable Fashion Moments; Adam Sternbergh asks if we're laughing with Brüno or at him; The Jokes Brüno Told in Every Interview.