There's been so much pre-release scrutiny of Sacha Baron Cohen's "Brüno" that the central question we generally ask about a comedy -- is it funny? -- has been almost completely obscured. Maybe it's beside the point anyway: Cohen has positioned himself as a satirist, a brave, punkish prankster who uses his considerable gifts to reveal and puncture prejudices like homophobia and anti-Semitism. But not every Cohen gag is sharpened meticulously for maximum satiric value. In "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation," Cohen poses as a naif from Kazakhstan to gain access to, and make fools of, targets that many of us left-leaning comedy lovers are happy to see fall, like Bob Barr and Alan Keyes, or the old guy at the Virginia rodeo who's all too willing to vent his beliefs that homosexuals should be run out of town or exterminated. But elsewhere in "Borat," Cohen's methods and aims are more scattershot, and his shtick is more stock: Setting out to "prove" how dumb Midwesterners are doesn't qualify as great satire. It's really just superiority.
In "Brüno" (which, like "Borat," was directed by Larry Charles), Cohen resurrects a character he originally invented for "Da Ali G. Show." Brüno isn't an innocent, like Borat is. He's the gay, German-speaking, fashion-obsessed host of an Austrian television show -- it goes by the silly-funny title "Funkyzeit Mit Bruno" -- who, yearning for success and celebrity in America, moves to Los Angeles to kick-start what he's sure will be a stellar career. Brüno may be gay, but his hair is bi, a two-tone thatch of black roots and platinum. The rest of his body is completely hairless, and he's devoted to keeping it as sleek and pristine as possible (he makes a grand fuss about booking an appointment to get his anus bleached). Brüno is admirably buff and likes outlandish clothes: When he tries to join the Alabama National Guard, he accents his fatigues with a nonregulation neckerchief and a Dolce & Gabbana belt -- he looks like a Boy Scout gunning for a merit badge in fashion.
Brüno likes sex with men, and lots of it: The accouterments that help him get off include a fire extinguisher and a special dildo powered by a stationary bicycle. And in trying to launch his Hollywood-style talk show, he lures many an innocent celeb into his lair, including Paula Abdul (who, when asked about her humanitarian work, replies robotically, "You give love to other people and you get love back in spades") and reality-TV personality Brittny Gastineau (who all too gamely participates in a segment of the program called "Keep It or Abort It"). (A relatively tame sequence featuring LaToya Jackson was cut from the film at the last minute, after Michael Jackson's death, a respectful gesture on the part of filmmakers who specialize in no-holds-barred comedy.)
Brüno will do anything to become famous: He tries to make a "sex wideo" featuring Ron Paul; he heads to the Middle East to try to broker peace between the Jews and the Palestinians (he gets them to agree, at least, that hummus is a very healthful food). When his efforts fail, he thinks maybe it's time to go straight, and books a session with an earnest, baby-faced counselor who specializes in de-gayification: Brüno nods attentively as the guy suggests that he avoid listening to music by Sinéad O'Connor, the Indigo Girls and the Village People.
As "Borat" did before it, "Brüno" intentionally pushes both the bounds of good taste and the bounds of human kindness. There are moments when Cohen's humor works beautifully as sharp, focused satire: I won't explain the "Mexican chair people" gag to you (I probably don't need to), but it's the kind of joke that can shock you into thinking. But Brüno's attempts to lure the unsuspecting Ron Paul into bed just come off as unsavory and cruel: Paul politely tries to avoid Brüno's obvious advances, nervously casting his eyes around the room and attempting to pick up some random reading material as a distraction. No matter how you feel about Paul's political views, in this instance he's cast as an older, straight guy who's being made to feel uncomfortable by a performer who'll go to great lengths for a laugh. (In a radio interview, Paul says that Cohen's people had told him he was going to be discussing "Austrian economics.") Paul's anguished embarrassment doesn't make a very good punch line; the best part of the sequence is a quip Brüno makes at the end.
"Borat" had the element of surprise going for it: Part of the movie's fun, and part of its cruelty, was seeing just how far Cohen would go with his elaborate pretense. And in the end, "Borat" illuminated, perhaps inadvertently, some of the more positive traits in the American character: For every bigoted, pigheaded American who took Cohen's bait, there were at least two more who were friendly, open-minded and eager to help. "Brüno" is, strangely, both more vicious and more playful than "Borat" is. But it also leaves us with fewer ideas to wrestle with: Sure, rednecks who hate gay people are bad. But I'm still not convinced that making us feel better about our own open-mindedness qualifies as great comedy.
What does work as comedy in "Brüno" is the ebullient physicality of Cohen's invented character. Brüno relishes outlandish combos: He likes to pair papery silver pants with studded neon-colored dog collars; at one point he shows up as a hipster Hasid, in a suit consisting of short shorts and a sleeveless black jacket (the better to show off his buff biceps), accessorized by an almost-proper Chippendale's-style starched collar -- and a bare chest. In fact, the visuals in "Brüno" may be more inspired, and funnier, than any of the scripted or improvised verbal jokes. Here's the spot where I sing the praises of Cohen's talking penis: It gets only a few moments on-screen, and I can't even remember what it said. But it's a stroke of loony genius, the kind of ridiculous gag I'll probably remember long after I've forgotten about the intricacies of Cohen's satirical style.
And that leads us to the central question so many have been asking about "Brüno": Should it or shouldn't it be considered offensive to homosexuals? Many of us have already forgotten that some similar questions swirled around "Borat": The Anti-Defamation League released a statement at the time, acknowledging that Cohen was using "humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism and other phobias born of ignorance and fear." But that admission was tempered by another statement: "We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry."
In other words, "We get it, but the stupid people out there won't." I have mixed feelings about "Brüno" as a work of comedy: Parts of it are brilliant; some of it feels tired and overplayed. Cohen has come up with some marvelous satirical motifs; elsewhere, he's just showing how far he'll go to get a laugh. But I don't know if any comedy can sustain the kind of "Is he for us or against us? Can he hurt us or help us?" scrutiny Cohen's movies have, and I don't think they should have to. Comedies aren't public service announcements with laugh tracks attached. It's anyone's right to find "Brüno" (or "Borat," for that matter) offensive, and to make that call, people actually need to see it. But if comedy needs to come with a protective outer sleeve covered with warnings and precautions, then it's comedy, and not the potentially offended audience, that's in real trouble. In the end, the funniest and most potent elements of comedy are usually the very things we can't put into words. As the talking penis might say: Read my lips.