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Thursday, July 23, 2009 12:47 pm

Bruno is dressed to offend

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You have to give Sacha Baron Cohen credit — the guy’s got nerve. While his critics are justified to be outraged by his brazen, guerilla methods of catching innocents off guard and using their shocked demeanor for comic effect, anyone who risks life and limb parading down the streets of Lebanon in a schoolboy outfit is a man who’s ready to suffer for his art. He has my admiration.

Riding high on the success of Borat, Cohen returns with Bruno, another mockumentary that’s a literal remake of the first feature in terms of structure and approach. However, this time out, Cohen’s a German fashionista who sets out to find fame after being exiled from the European fashion scene. The character goes to great lengths to be in the spotlight and along the way the filmmaker takes shots at our media-obsessed culture, self-absorbed celebrities and homophobes, among others.

One would think that Cohen’s notoriety would make it difficult for him to reel in unsuspecting targets, however that’s not the case, especially where conservatives and those in the Deep South are concerned. Presidential candidate Ron Paul finds himself in an awkward position when an interview with Bruno turns into a seduction scene, while an encounter with Paula Abdul is cut short when she’s forced to sit on the back of a Mexican laborer due to a lack of furniture at their meeting. While these two were taken unawares, it’s obvious that some celebs are in on the joke and they play along gleefully. An “interview” with Harrison Ford garners an explosive laugh while a climactic music video with a roster of elite pop stars ends the film on a high note.

While these sequences generate healthy laughter, the ones involving those far from the public eye are as disturbing as they are funny. You’ll want to throttle a stage mother who agrees to have her 30-pound daughter lose 10 pounds in a week in order to get a photo shoot in which the child will be dressed as a Nazi officer wheeling another kid to an oven. This is far more disturbing than the many homosexual gags that run throughout. Equally disturbing are Bruno’s meetings with two gay converters whose opinions of women are as backwards and chauvinistic as those off a Neanderthal, while shots of incensed rednecks witnessing a cage fight turn into a session of homosexual lovemaking are downright frightening. While some may point out that Cohen is taking advantage of the ignorant and misinformed, that doesn’t make their behavior any less horrific.

Not all of the gags work and there’s a sense at times that Cohen’s trying too hard to shock us. While moments at an Army reserve training camp and a Dallas talk show are obviously staged, others where Bruno’s seen ruining a taping of the show “Medium” or making psychic contact with an old lover are as funny as they are audacious. While it’s unknown how long Cohen will be able to get away with this act without getting beaten or shot, his approach is necessary in our increasingly superficial media world. He turns the beast on itself by using show biz techniques to expose the insecurities of the rich and famous and the compromises they make while skewering those who consume what they see in the media without thinking. Cohen’s approach is not for all tastes but he’s a necessary jester where deflating narcissistic kings and their lemming-like followers is concerned.