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‘Bruno’ Draws Disconcerting Belly Laughs

What to make of a movie like "Bruno?"

It's tempting to say that if you're easily offended, Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film will offend you, indeed. But that's true even if you aren't easily offended. It's part of Baron Cohen's method - to jab a stick in the eye of convention to make a point about society, with collateral damage simply a part of the bargain. He did it with "Borat," his 2006 feature that employs many of the same guerilla filmmaking methods (though much of "Bruno" appears to be more obviously scripted).

He does it again here. If the film is not as successful - you can only be that original once - it is funny, often hilarious.

And did we mention offensive?

Bruno is a gay Austrian fashionista (yes, the sexuality matters, as it is a recurring theme) who, through a series of mishaps, decides to reboot his life in Los Angeles, where he plans to become a celebrity. How? However. It's his version of the American dream - fame at any cost.

So Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, who also directed "Borat," set about taking aim at such targets as celebrity charity work (a public-relations firm comes in for some especially harsh, self-inflicted ridicule), celebrity adoption, tabloid talk shows, the culture of fame and, in one memorable bit, Paula Abdul.

I can't imagine congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul will be renting the film when it's out on video. And Mel Gibson's not going to be very happy, either.

Bruno tries his hand at hosting an interview show, even getting a production company to fund a pilot, with disastrous results (a talking penis is perhaps not the way to win over middle America). He decides that becoming straight could be the secret to success, so he visits a minister who specializes in "converting" gay men. You can guess how well that goes. ("Are you hitting on me?")

Bruno gives a stint in the military a try. He goes hunting with some manly men. He visits a swingers' party, where he's set upon by a dominatrix. He adopts a baby from Africa, enraging the audience of "The Richard Bey Show." And he continually spurns the advances of his loyal assistant's assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten, in the thankless sort of role Ken Davitian had in "Borat"). How he gets away with half of this stuff is anyone's guess.

Make no mistake, much of it is squirm-inducing. It's at times genuinely uncomfortable to watch, but that's part of the humor. The methods Baron Cohen and Charles employ are all or nothing, no half-measures taken. It's definitely not for everyone, but for those who get it, it's a twisted sort of brilliance.

(For what it's worth, those in on the joke include Bono, Sting, Slash, Elton John and Snoop Dogg, who appear in a video at the end of the film.)

Where "Bruno" falls short is in the limitations of the joke. Borat was the classic stranger in a strange land, allowing him ample opportunity to poke holes in all manner of American culture. Much of "Bruno" revolves around his sexuality, and his flaunting (or, for a time, his repression) of it. Funny while it lasts, and intolerance is a noble target, but it's too one-note to sustain.

There's also the matter of familiarity. The taping of a reality show toward the end of the film, for instance, is too reminiscent of the rodeo scene in "Borat," except not as funny.

Still, if "Bruno" is not quite up to the lofty standards of "Borat," it is daring and sometimes insightful. And I laughed out loud, a lot, which is doubtless Baron Cohen's ultimate goal, anyway.

Rated R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

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