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Sacha Baron Cohen’s Latest Prank Scores Without the Cruelty of ‘Borat’

If you look up the word "prank," among the older definitions is this one: "A trick to make people stare." Thanks to movies like "Bruno," comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to "Borat," a newer definition would have to add "or look away." Prepare to squirm, or worse: As one of the subjects/victims in the film's myriad setups says after falling prey to Cohen's antics, "I wanted to poke my eyes out with hot needles."

My own reaction also involved pain, not to the eyes so much as the stomach: "Bruno" is laugh-out-loud, sucker-punch-in-the-gut funny. With a comedic barrage of shock, irony, slapstick and ongoing discomfort, you probably won't know what's hit you, and you'll likely lose your balance. Especially during a full-screen full frontal of what in this case could appropriately be called a tallywhacker. (You've been warned.)

When it comes to obscenity, "Bruno" charts new territory. How much were members of the ratings board paid off to give this movie an "R"? (For a lesson in how far standards can sink in 20 years, look up 1990's tame "Henry & June," the first major NC-17 film.) But there's intelligence and discipline behind the madness. Cohen and his collaborators, including director Larry Charles (the whiz behind "Seinfeld"), have refined their guerrilla game and learned a lesson their previous social experiment, "Borat," lacked: That it's enough to make fools out of people without being cruel. No need to call a man's wife ugly at the dinner table. Let people humiliate themselves on their own.

While "Borat" used a crude Muslim stereotype to bait real people's racism, Bruno is a nonmalicious catalyst for testing patience and homophobia levels. An Austrian fashionista sashaying from Europe to the U.S. to Asia and back, Bruno combines a series of ridiculously flamboyant garments with a dumb stare that makes Zoolander seem intellectual. Cohen's lanky frame and mop-top resemble a grown-up version of the petulant child Stuart from "Madtv." A less-quirky, less-witty Bruno would be an offensive gay stereotype — but he's quirky and witty enough to slip by.

There's a thin plotline involving Bruno's journey to seek fame (he wants to be "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler"), and a slowly burgeoning love story with his assistant Lutz, (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten, stoically backing Cohen's improv), which at times feels like a retread from "Borat." But the well-oiled pranks and setups win the day, from a disrupted fashion show (Bruno's Velcro outfit disrupting the stuffy self-importance of Agatha Ruiz De La Prada and friends) to a Jerry Springer-like program in which Bruno introduces his adopted African baby, named O.J., to an audience of increasingly incensed black Americans.

Much of the comedy results from the dangerous tension of discovering people's limits: What does it take to upset former presidential candidate Ron Paul enough to call Bruno "queer as the blazes!"? At what point will an anything-goes swingers' club call a timeout on Bruno's clumsy intrusions?

Reactions in the Deep South are predictable — as a Bruno-led wrestling match morphs from homoerotic to homosexual, the yahoo fans' mock-anger turns viciously real. And an outing with four grimly intolerant hunters looked like it could end in murder. These scenes make compelling contrasts to Bruno's provocations among Arabs and Jews in the Middle East — some violent, but some remarkably good-natured, as when members of the Mossad and Palestinian Authority calmly explain to Bruno that "Hamas" and "hummus" are different things.

"Bruno" is at its best when it draws out the ironies and paradoxes of human nature — most hilariously when he convinces Paula Abdul to sit on a Mexican gardener's back as she discusses humanitarian causes, or when several Hollywood parents, quite damningly, demonstrate scant regard for their children's safety as they respond to audition questions (the negative impact on their lives could match that of the racist frat boys in "Borat"). The heightened absurdity of such moments goes far beyond the average "Daily Show" interview segment, and builds "Bruno" into a deftly assembled magnum opus of epic pranksterism.

"Bruno." Rated: R. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. 3 stars.

To find out more about Zachary Woodruff and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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