After the breakout success of 2006's controversial "Borat," it was inevitable that star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles would eventually pull out an equally or even more outrageous follow-up. Once again taking a character from Baron Cohen's TV series "Da Ali G Show," the pair chose to build a feature film around the character of Brüno, a flamboyantly gay and unabashedly self-absorbed fashionista/TV host from Austria. Just as "Borat" was comprised of staged gags and awkward "Candid Camera"-esque interactions with real people, so this new film straddles the line between reality and fiction as Brüno makes his way across America in his quest to become a celebrity. And just like its predecessor, "Brüno" pushes the boundaries of good taste and acceptable mainstream content as it breaks down American prejudices and intolerance.
But considering how enormously popular "Borat" was, particularly with audiences who were just discovering Baron Cohen and his subversive brand of humor, one had to wonder how a new film could possibly top it. The answer: it didn't. In spite of some feverish studio promotion and a memorable stunt at the MTV Movie Awards (that turned out to be more controversial than the film itself), "Brüno" failed to stir up the wild frenzy of its predecessor and was a box office dud. I am sure some will attribute this failure to mainstream America's discomfort with blatantly homoerotic material, but as someone who is not so easily shocked by film content, I spent the majority of my viewing with a nagging sense of "been there, seen that."
Baron Cohen follows the same basic structure of his previous film, with Brüno—who sports revealing outfits, streaked hair, and a waxed body—traveling with a camera crew and his devoted assistant's assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) from state to state. Having been rejected by the fashion world, he plans to create his own celebrity talk show. When this idea fails (a focus group is offended by his suggestion that D-list celebrity fetuses should be aborted and graphic close-up shots of a swinging, talking penis), Brüno decides to become a celebrity himself, resorting to all of the tried-and-true methods: having a cause, adopting an African child, creating a sex tape. But nobody seems to appreciate his colorful fashion sense or his constant lust for other men, and so he decides to go straight by immersing himself in all that is heterosexual: hunting, the military, and swinging.
"Brüno" is indeed a funny movie, at times hilariously so. The best moments are those involving real people and their reactions to Brüno's behavior. Particularly notable are his appearance on a Dallas talk show in front of an all-black audience, who are mortified that he subjects his African baby (whom he's given the "typical African-American name" O.J.) to his openly gay lifestyle, and a hunting trip with a group of Alabama good ol' boys who ready their shotguns in case of nightly visits from their guest. But there is so much that just falls flat, not the least of which is the fictionalized "plot" concerning Brüno's developing relationship with Lutz that eventually turns to romance. Lutz as a character is one-note and is never as involved in the story as Ken Davitian's Azamat from "Borat." The romance does lead to a terrific payoff in a cage-fighting arena, brilliantly set to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," but throughout most of the film it just seems like a distraction from the funnier scenes.
Another problem is the shift in focus and satirized target throughout. The opening scenes of the film attempt to take a biting look at the shallow world of the fashion industry, but it ends much too quickly and offers nothing we haven't seen elsewhere. Brüno's quest for celebrity status pokes fun at obvious targets like "Brangelina," but again it fails to dig deeper than most "Saturday Night Live" sketches. The last third of the film, focusing on Brüno's exaggerated homosexuality in largely conservative environments, is far and away the best. But as with "Borat," I couldn't help but feel that a lot of this is less revelatory than the filmmakers seem to believe it is. Are we honestly supposed to be surprised that hunters from Alabama or a group of raging spectators at a cage fight are turned off by man-on-man sexual activity? It raises a good point about a social preference for violence over love, but it's an all-too-easy way to make that point.
I suppose the movie's one significant achievement is exposing mainstream audiences to all sorts of homoerotic imagery they otherwise would deliberately avoid—including the aforementioned close-up of a flopping penis, sexual contraptions with dildos attached, and a leather-clad Brüno having wild sex with his pygmy lover—and using them as points of audience confrontation rather than derision. It is a simultaneously low and admirable strategy, as it asks viewers not to vilify gay sex but rather view it with the same lewd irreverence with which they view heterosexual sex. In its own way, the film is a plea for tolerance, but its message frequently becomes lost in its uneven execution and perhaps even its own confusion between the empowering and the simplistic. Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles ultimately make the case that everyone, gay or straight, can be reduced to a gross stereotype in search of one sexual organ or the other. But for all of its button-pushing, the end result is almost as superficial as its egocentric hero.
Universal Home Video's Blu-ray transfer of "Brüno" presents the film in the best possible quality. The 1080p high-definition transfer showcases crisp images and vivid color saturation most of the time. Some scenes that were filmed with hidden cameras or in low lighting expectedly exhibit noise and minimal detail, but otherwise the film appears bright and rich. The original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio is preserved.
Given the nature of the film's audio during interviews, the sound is not its strong point and can occasionally be tinny, but the techno pop songs played throughout, including the opening credits, pulsate through the speakers in a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track. French and Spanish 5.1 DTS tracks and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish are also included.
For its first supplement, the disc offers viewers the option of viewing the film with or without enhanced commentary. Unlike a traditional audio commentary, this one features Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles occasionally popping up in a PIP window and allows them to actually stop the film at various points so that they can go into greater detail about the given scene. The two make lively commentators, elaborating on which scenes were staged and which were real, who was in on them, and some of the dangers Baron Cohen faced during the making of the film. In total, the commentary runs 108 minutes (the film is only 82 minutes).
Up next is more than an hour's worth of deleted, alternative, and extended scenes that range from hilarious to outright misfires. Included here is the much publicized sequence involving LaToya Jackson that was removed at the last minute following Michael Jackson's death. More interesting, though, is Brüno's interview with a white supremacist, an uproarious sequence that should have remained in the final film. A couple of these sequences are exclusive to the Blu-ray release.
The last extra is a five-and-a-half minute interview with Lloyd Robinson, a Hollywood talent agent who appeared in the movie as Brüno's agent. It is an amusing interview, as Robinson reveals that he had no idea who Baron Cohen was and was completely oblivious to the fact that Brüno was a fictional character. He clearly holds no hard feelings and has some funny things to say.
In spite of the plethora of deleted footage, I'm surprised by the lack of promotional material on this disc. It would have been nice if Universal had included some of "Brüno's" public appearances, or the MTV Movie Awards stunt with Eminem, but alas, that's not the case. The disc is BD-Live enabled, however, and Universal includes a second disc with a digital copy of the film.
Perhaps the novelty of Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy has worn off, but although "Brüno" is funny, it fails to carry the weight of its groundbreaking predecessor. Universal's Blu-ray edition is packed with extra material, however, so fans should indulge.