There’s no denying that Brüno, the new Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, is a tad raunchy. Not since Chicken Run has one film played host to quite so much cock. But who could possibly be offended by the story of a fashion reporter who aspires to be the most famous Austrian since Hitler, regards the purchase of an African baby as one innocuous step on the road to celebrity, and partakes of sexual practices so outré that there can’t be more than a few hundred websites devoted to them at the time of writing?
(A search using the keywords “dildo”, “exercise bike” and “pliant Filipino” should point the curious among you in the right, or wrong, direction.) Nevertheless, some Austrians have taken umbrage. Then there was the author of a letter to the Guardian, objecting to a superfluous umlaut in the film’s title. An article in the same newspaper concluded that Brüno can be enjoyed only once Baron Cohen has openly denounced homophobia. This raises the possibility that some audiences, unable to decide whether a movie in which all sympathy rests with a gay man can be homophobic, will withhold their merriment pending a signed affidavit from the film-makers. Militant punctuation groups, I fear, may not be so readily placated. We could be talking a hyphen for a hyphen, or the Four Horsemen of the Apostrophe.
Brüno inhabits the discomfort zone between documentary and fiction, where the certainties attached to either form cannot be taken for granted. But mostly you’re relishing it too much to speculate where the script ends and spontaneity begins. The film is a retread of Borat, this time with a credulous Austrian, instead of a credulous Kazakh, exposing prejudice using only his naivety and enough hidden cameras to have MI5 drooling with envy.
After losing a TV presenting job, Brüno decamps to the US, though de-camping is a concept that he would struggle to comprehend. Many of the film’s initial gags are fairly obvious: a catwalk model is encouraged to commiserate about a hard day at the coalface, and Paula Abdul discusses her humanitarian work while seated on an immigrant gardener who is crouching on all fours. Abdul takes flight when a finger buffet is served on the naked body of a Mexican man, perhaps foreseeing the complications that could arise if she plumped for a sausage roll.
The rest of the film’s humour isn’t so easy; in fact, it is distinctly uneasy, and the predominant sound in the cinema tends not to be laughter so much as the sucking of air through teeth. There is an awkward encounter with a pastor who specialises in “converting” homosexuals, an activity that sounds like it should require either planning permission or a working knowledge of exchange rates. Then, at a swingers’ party, Brüno puts his arm around a sweaty fellow who is engaging in an act that the film-makers have, to use the modern parlance, redacted. (No, he’s not exhibiting his parliamentary expenses.)
Anyway, he doesn’t take kindly to Brüno’s interruptus of his coitus. “I ain’t gettin’ into none of that queer shit!” he rages, scarcely realising that, as someone who enjoys having sex in front of other men, this particular stable door is swinging in the breeze, the horse long since bolted.
As a forceful offensive against homophobia, the film is as principled in its own bawdy way as Milk or Philadelphia. It is also a nagging critique of celebrity (at least until Bono and Elton John turn up to spoil things). No horror movie could be as disturbing as the audition that Brüno holds for child models, where one Mrs (and Mr) Worthington after another consents meekly to his ghoulish demands. The mother who promises to force her 30lb daughter to shed 10lb in seven days, with emergency liposuction as a plan B, crosses the line between pushy parent and pimp, and fair chills the blood.
Brüno confirms Baron Cohen as a satirist of Swiftian intent, a physical performer with the poise of Jacques Tati, and a Method actor to rank alongside Brando. His skill lies not just in staying straight-faced, or staying put in times of danger, but in making Brüno an enduring innocent: miming fellatio enthusiastically, he looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Of course, no appraisal of the picture should pass without mention of the gaudy costumes. Particularly memorable is the pink, anatomically correct, woollen bodysuit. That outfit has cojones, and so does the film.