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Review: 'Bruno' no 'Borat' but still outrageous

  • Story Highlights
  • "Bruno" is Sacha Baron Cohen's new film; he plays gay fashionista
  • Film attempts to show homophobia but in some cases pushes too hard
  • Still, last scene makes it worth it, says reviewer Tom Charity
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Achtung, baby!

Sacha Baron Cohen stars as a flamboyant Austrian fashionista in "Bruno."

Sacha Baron Cohen stars as a flamboyant Austrian fashionista in "Bruno."

There's a British theory that everything sounds funnier delivered with a Teutonic accent. That's tested to the limit in Sacha Baron Cohen's newest provocation, "Bruno," but it's not what comes out of his mouth that makes the Austrian fashionista such a handful.

The man in the tight yellow lederhosen knows that in our visually overstimulated culture, a picture is vorth a thousand vords. More if there's significant skin involved -- and he's happy to show us his wurst.

Cohen seems to believe that prudery is the enemy. Certainly, bad taste is his Trojan horse. An early montage of romantic coupling, Bruno-style, is enough to get tongues wagging -- or clucking in disapproval. It's the closest thing to gay porn most heterosexuals will see this side of "300."

Either way, Cohen's laughing: Properly managed, outrage is a useful marketing tool, as "Borat" showed.

Apparently permanently airbrushed right down to his backside, Bruno looks nothing like his hirsute Kazakh cousin, but the men share an ego; they're equally insensitive to other people and oblivious to notions of social decorum and the politically correct.

And they both invest heavily in the American Dream. Bruno hungers after fame as hungrily as Borat lusted for Pamela Anderson.

After a brief prologue in Europe -- and the distressing revelation of the vacuity of the fashion scene -- he sets out for Los Angeles, determined to become Austria's "biggest superstar since Hitler."

Perhaps inspired by another Cohen creation, Ali G, he sets out to make a celebrity interview show -- but sadly, the only dupes ignorant enough to participate are "American Idol" judges (Paula Abdul chats about her philanthropic pursuits while perched on the back of an immigrant laborer) and presidential candidates (take a bow, Ron Paul).

It's not just about the scarcity of the guests, though. Bruno doesn't draw them out the way Borat did. Quite the opposite: Mostly they're wary and guarded, or downright hostile -- and understandably so, often enough, given Bruno's shock tactics.

Yes, it's funny seeing him fire up a predominantly African-American TV studio audience by announcing that his "adopted" black baby is named O.J., but still, the scene tells us more about Cohen's need to provoke than about the crowd's supposed homophobia.

The same goes for his brief stint in a U.S. Army training facility. The actor's quick wit and virtuoso physical comedy skills carry the day, but just as Bruno is forced to abandon one dead-end celebrity scheme after another, the movie too seems to be casting about haphazardly for some real comic traction.

Evidently it's not easy testing taboos in 2009.

Wherever Bruno turns, he seems to be following in someone else's footsteps. Peace talks in Israel (what Bruno calls "Middle Earth")? Morgan Spurlock has been there, done that. Camping out with the gun lobby? Michael Moore, "Bowling for Columbine." Gay conversion? Didn't director Larry Charles go there with Bill Maher just last year in "Religulous"?

Meanwhile, Bruno's love-hate relationship with his assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), only highlights how similar the new film's few narrative pegs are to "Borat."

Some sketches do hit much closer to home. A series of interviews with stage moms and dads who eagerly sign up their infants to work with hornets, wasps, dead or dying animals, antiquated heavy machinery and sundry toxic substances is a real jaw-dropper, though the kicker is tempered by Bruno's behavior.

And, to its credit, the film saves the best for last. In a show-stopping climax (which I don't propose to spoil here) Cohen puts it all on the line and definitively nails gay-bashers where it hurts: right between the eyes. "Bruno" vs. Borat": Preview audience weighs in

It's an elaborate -- and brave -- stunt by which Bruno ultimately achieves the fame he craves. And it does more than enough to validate the film's fast and loose play with stereotypes and questionable undercover tactics. "Bruno" has its problems, but the finale makes it a winner.

"Bruno" is rated R and runs 83 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.

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