The left-field success of 2006’s Borat created a whole new set of problems for Sacha Baron Cohen: It’s hard to slip into loaded situations incognito, then slink away in a cartoon cloud of mischief and anarchy, when you’re behind one of the biggest pop-culture phenomena of the decade. Yet it’s a testament to Cohen’s genius as a professional chameleon and his devotion to staying in character that flamboyant creations like Ali G, Borat, and Brüno are arguably more famous than he is. Cohen wisely waited for Borat mania to cool down before launching a shockingly successful sneak attack on America in the form of Brüno, a chutzpah-rich feature-film vehicle for his sassy, scantily clad Austrian fashionista.
Brüno finds Cohen traveling once again to our shores in dogged pursuit of the American Dream, circa 2009: becoming famous for no discernible reason. In his dogged pursuit of celebrity at all costs, Cohen attempts to seduce Ron Paul, horrifies a TV focus group by showing them a dancing naked penis, invites Paula Abdul to eat sushi off a fat naked man, and instigates a full-frontal assault on propriety and sexual repression.
Cohen and his collaborators revel in exposing the ugly minds behind the tanned, toned, perfectly accessorized exteriors of the beautiful people. The star/co-writer has a singular talent for getting people to expose their desperation for approval and validation, whether that means getting a vapid reality-show starlet to heckle an ultrasound of a luckless fetus, or coercing creepy stage parents into agreeing to baby liposuction (for the infant who just can’t shed that last five pounds) for a spot at the spotlight. Not all Cohen’s targets come off badly; a psychic illustrates an almost heroic level of patience while Cohen performs an elaborate pantomime of a series of sexual acts that would only be possible on an elephant with oddly shaped genitalia. Brüno brings an exhilarating element of danger back to comedy both by pushing the boundaries in every conceivable sense and by suggesting that its star is seldom more than a few provocations away from getting beaten senseless by the people he’s antagonizing. Cohen no longer has freshness and novelty on his side, but he’s retained the power to shock, offend, provoke, unsettle, and most importantly, entertain a jaded, desensitized public.