There's a legendary moment in Borat when you stop laughing and move on to a sort of desperate, horrified gasping because what you're seeing is, literally, beyond funny. That moment, of course, is the nude wrestling match between Borat, a hairy beanpole of a broadcaster from Kazakhstan, and his producer, a mountain of bearded blubber. When you're presented with a sight like that the most purely awful spectacle since Divine sampled dog poop at the end of John Waters' Pink Flamingos something more than mere laughter is required. Like maybe a call to 911.
There's nothing quite that shock-and-awesome in Brüno, in which Sacha Baron Cohen is a gay Austrian fashionista who sets himself loose upon an unsuspecting world. How could there be? Since we now know there's nothing Baron Cohen won't do, we can't really be surprised when he does it. Make no mistake the man who once asked an enraged neo-Nazi if he used moisturizer is still willing to go places you wouldn't go in body armor. So he gives us Brüno on a camping trip trying to seduce some revolted Alabama hunters; Brüno getting belt-whipped hard by a nude dominatrix; Brüno in a steel-cage match melting into wet kisses with his opponent while the crowd goes wild and not in a good way. But even when Brüno is in a hotel room infuriating members of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades a situation that needs to be handled with care, especially if the guy handling it is a fey blond who hasn't heard that hot pants went out with Charlie's Angels you think, Hey, at least they're not in a bear hug.
It's safe to say that after more than a decade honing his characters on television and in films, Baron Cohen is more than a comedian. He's the world's most famous performance artist, the inventor of a perfect hybrid of documentary and mockumentary, reality TV and psychodrama, Jackass and Andy Kaufman. When he gets the mixture just right, he creates situations of unbearable tension that at the same time turn out to be unbearably funny. For instance, at one point Brüno does a Madonna/Angelina, coming back from Africa with a baby. Then he appears as a guest on an actual talk show and tells the mostly African-American audience that he got the kid by trading an iPod for him. He also has the boy dressed in a T-shirt that says "Gayby." The crowd goes wild and not in a good way. Scenes like that are the emotional equivalent of Guantánamo stress positions. They're very uncomfortable, and sometimes you're left in them for a long time. Maybe laughter is the only way out.
For the record, Brüno, like Borat, was directed by Larry Charles. And as with Borat, the story in Brüno is just the merest pretext for stringing together provocations. At the beginning, Brüno is the hip-cocking host of Funkyzeit, a late-night Austrian TV show that tours the world of style. When he wrecks a runway show and ends up shunned by the Euro-fashion crowd, he lights out for the Middle East, Africa and the U.S. to become "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler." At which point Brüno becomes, again like Borat, a road comedy, the odyssey of an outlandish man whose greatest talent actually, his only talent is to bring out the worst in other people. And Brüno's basic m.o., like Borat's, is to go into the world with a camera to bewilder and infuriate people, never failing to prove that anger and stupidity are the permanent default modes of the human brain.
Some parts of Brüno the weakest ones are closer to conventional scripted comedy than anything in Borat. A montage of scenes of sexual gymnastics involving Brüno and a pint-size Asian boyfriend could have come from a Will Ferrell movie, assuming Ferrell was willing to have himself penetrated by a mechanical dildo. (And don't bet he wouldn't be.) But Brüno's encounters with real people are priceless, even when the real people are celebrities. When the L.A. house he is renting as a location for a new interview show turns out to be unfurnished, Brüno recruits some Mexican laborers to get down on all fours as human benches. What kind of person would actually sit on other people? Now we know: Paula Abdul, warily, and LaToya Jackson, with gusto. Jackson's scene was cut from the film after Michael's death, so unless it's restored on the DVD, you won't get to see that what really offends her about the situation is not the humiliation of the workers but Brüno's persistent attempts to get her brother's phone number.
It goes without saying that Stephen Colbert owes Baron Cohen a debt too large to repay, but by comparison, Colbert plays it safe. His guests always know that Colbert's right-wing blowhard character is a put-on, and they happily play along. When Brüno tries to start a cuddle party with Texas Representative Ron Paul "Has anyone ever told you, you look like Enrique Iglesias?" the flustered former presidential candidate is definitely not in on the joke. As Paul makes his panicky escape down a hallway, he clues in one of his aides: "This guy is a queer!"
You can find sources for Baron Cohen's comic method in a lot of places. He's a great fan of Peter Sellers, and one Sellers role in particular hovers over everything Baron Cohen does Chance the Gardener, the blank slate in Being There who provokes all those around him to expose themselves in some way. And then there's the other comic who was routinely described as a performance artist: Andy Kaufman. For starters, Borat owes a thing or two to Latka, the Ruritanian innocent that Kaufman played on Taxi. More important, Baron Cohen's approach calls to mind those Kaufman routines though routine is the wrong word for anything he did in which he deliberately set out to bore and bewilder his audiences, just to see what would happen. In one he went onstage and simply read aloud from The Great Gatsby. While everyone waited for the joke, the punch line, the something, the anything, he just kept reading.
But Kaufman reserved his passive aggression for audiences, who because they were audiences were already primed for a performance of some kind, even if they didn't always get the joke. Baron Cohen takes his act out into the wider world, all for the fun of proving what fools these mortals be. That includes the mortals called Ali G, Borat and Brüno Baron Cohen's comic characters are as dumb and deplorable as the people they mock. Ali G is a self-deluding white guy who yearns to be a black rapper. Borat is a rube and an anti-Semite. This is why the inevitable debate over whether the new film is a critique of homophobia or an incitement to more of it misses the point. Brüno sees everybody in the pejorative, including Brüno, who is trivial, narcissistic, mean to his devoted assistant and obsessed with cheesy fame. But even so, he's preferable to a lot of the people he meets, with their ignorance and prejudice, hypocrisy and primitive rage. Brüno may be a bumbler, but he holds all the cards he's the character who turns out to be lovable, because how can you not love somebody who makes you laugh so hard? Hell, how can you not be in awe of somebody who can persuade a martial-arts instructor to demonstrate the many ways to defend yourself against a homosexual who attacks you from behind with two dildos? Ron Paul, take note.
Brüno could be looked at as the third in a trilogy of films that Baron Cohen has devoted to each of the three characters he developed first on British television and then on HBO. Though Ali G Indahouse was a hit in the U.K., it went straight to video in the U.S. Borat was, of course, a global cultural and box-office phenomenon, except maybe in Kazakhstan, where some people got a bit sniffy. Both characters are too famous now for Baron Cohen to use them anymore as a lure for the unsuspecting. Before the summer is out, Brüno will be too. So this may be the last film of this strange and brilliant kind that Baron Cohen can make for a while, maybe forever. Even Ron Paul wouldn't fall for Brüno anymore. But chances are you will, and hard.