Comedy sequels are a tricky business; ask the makers of Caddyshack II, Ghostbusters II, City Slickers II, Analyze That, Blues Brothers 2000, Arthur 2: On The Rocks, and many more. The difficulty is that much of what is funny is based on the element of surprise, the unexpected intermingling and incongruence of character and situation. "Been there, done that" is the antithesis of screen comedy, and unless comics can find a fresh spin, additional installments can feel like warmed-over sitcom episodes.
That trouble is compounded when you're making a sequel to a comedy as unique and unexpected as Borat--and let's be honest, that's what star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles' new film, Brüno, is. It may not feature the same character, but it does find the same star and director returning to that film's style--a distinctive pastiche of scripted comedy, documentary, and gonzo performance art--with a new character, but hoping for similar results (a gotcha social satire, George Carlin by way of Andy Kaufman and Michael Moore). And that's its only real weakness, the only way in which it comes up short comparatively--Borat was so fresh and bizarrely unprecedented, so willing to go anywhere and do anything, that it staked out its own comedic territory and made its own rules.
Which is not to imply that Brüno is in any way timid--quite the contrary. This is a movie that doesn't just cross the line; it crosses the line, laughs at that line, makes a new line, and then crosses that. There are things in the film that I never thought I would see in a movie theater, from the jaw-droppingly graphic montage of Brüno and his boyfriend's inventive sex life to a stomach-churning sequence where he visits a swinger's party to the cheerfully bouncing genitalia on the American television show that he puts in front of a disgusted focus group. If the nude wrestling scene in Borat was too much for you, well, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Brüno was the third character (and last to get a film) from Cohen's breakthrough series, "Da Ali G Show"; a flamboyant gay Austrian fashionista who hosts a trend-spotting television show, he begins the feature by wrecking a fashion show that he tries to cover while wearing a Velcro suit (it's a funny bit, even if Letterman did it twenty years ago). Blacklisted from the European fashion scene, he, in his words, decides instead "to go to Los Angeles and become a celebrity."
That quest forms the narrative of the film, which is really just a loose skeleton from which to hang gags. A review of a thinly plotted vignette comedy like Brüno can easily turn into a lazy list of the funniest bits, which does little but spoil the film; suffice it to say that the comic sequences are cleverly built, frequently intersecting, reappearing, and bouncing off of each other, and the timing (of both Cohen and editors Scott M. Davids and James Thomas) is impeccable--a mid-film campfire scene has one of the greatest long, awkward pauses ever captured on film.
The film's broad and aggressive (if somewhat intellectually sophisticated) parodying of socially acceptable homophobia couldn't be more timely; his straight-faced consultations with a pair of fundamentalist "gay converters" are comic gold (though the vile bigots of Westboro Baptist Church, as big a bulls-eye as one could paint for Cohen, are used only for a quick sight gag--a missed opportunity if there ever was one). But the movie isn't singular in its mockery--there are unexpected sideswipes at stage parents, terrorists, celebrity culture, and the armed forces. And I won't blow what is (to this reviewer) the movie's funniest sequence, but it begins with the line "Lutz, find me someone famous. We're going to make a sex video," and spins off from there.
Brüno has its share of problems; while it's not as grubby and shoddy-looking as Borat, Charles' preferred method of photography remains putting the gag smack-gob in front of your face, and some of the running jokes (like Brüno's mangled mixing of German and English) don't pay off. But its climactic scene, in which our newly "straight" hero hosts a cage-fighting event for a crowd of beer-swilling Arkansas hooligans, is one of the bravest, ballsiest (no pun intended) sequences I've seen in any recent film, comedy or otherwise. Of course, it's wickedly funny as well. But, as with the best of Cohen's material, it's laughter that stings.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.