“Bruno” contains moments of explosive, outrageous, I-can’t-believe-what-I’m-seeing hilarity.

At the same time, the second feature (after “Borat”) from satiric agent provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen points out the limits of his guerrilla comedy style.

Drawback No. 1: Because so much of his films are improvised, it’s impossible to create a satisfying story. A Baron Cohen film is, at best, a series of lunatic sketches on a common theme.

Drawback No. 2: His humor goes way beyond irony into contempt, both for the unsuspecting non combatants who are Baron Cohen’s comic foils and for the characters he plays.

Bruno, a flamboyant gay Austrian who worships fashion, is as smooth and slinky as Borat was hairy and thick. Like all of Baron Cohen’s characters, he is an ignoramus, bursting with self-importance even as he is incapable of self-reflection.

We’re not expected to like Bruno and Borat, who are as shallow as an Ozarks gene pool; rather, we’re supposed to see past their idiocy to admire the savage humor and acting chops of their creator.

And I don’t mean God.

“Bruno” begins with our man destroying a Milan fashion show by careening about in a suit made of Velcro – picking up clothing and curtains like a human magnet. He subsequently loses his cable TV show in Vienna.

Like countless other mad egotists, Bruno declares he’s going to Hollywood to become a famous celebrity, “the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler.”

Some of this stuff is screamingly funny; lots of it just falls flat:

He signs with an L.A. agent, gets a job as an extra on NBC’s “The Medium” (he’s thrown off the set for upstaging one of the stars) and does a pilot for his own celebrity interview show. Bruno’s first subject is “American Idol” judge Paula Abdul; when it turns out their filming location has no furniture, Bruno asks Abdul to sit on a Mexican gardener recruited to pose on his hands and knees – and she does!

Bruno’s pilot doesn’t fly with a test audience. Perhaps it’s the talking genitalia. (Leave the kids at home.)

Through all this Bruno is accompanied by his flunky Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), a pasty dweeb hopelessly in love with the preening, temperamental fashionista.

Noting that Angelina and Madonna have gotten lots of mileage out of adopting African orphans, Bruno gets one of his own, a lethargic child he transports in a cardboard crate. On a Dallas TV talk show (think Jerry Springer, only lower rent) he outrages the African-American audience by announcing that he got baby O.J. in exchange for an iPod.

In an effort to remake himself, Bruno endures religious therapy intended to make him straight, attends a National Guard boot camp and finally becomes a cage fight promoter. That last gig goes up in flames when unsuspecting Arkansas fight fans witness Bruno and Lutz – their love/indifference relationship finally igniting – going down on one another in the ring.

A riot ensues. The two actors just miss being decapitated by a folding metal chair hurled from the bleachers.

Like “Borat,” “Bruno” has a high wince factor. It’s not the homosexual jokes (which are astoundingly rude but not actually vicious) but rather the way Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles exploit their victims.

Sometimes they deserve it. We watch in open-mouthed awe as a clergyman tries to straighten out our man with a string of misogynistic generalizations. And a stage mother whose daughter is up for a part in a Bruno production blithely agrees to put her kid in horrifically dangerous situations.

But you feel sorry for congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, who is lured into a hotel suite to be interviewed by a foreign “journalist” and finds himself confronted with a prancing fellow in a thong. He reacts about the way you’d expect a hetero 72-year-old male would.

Ditto for three good ol’ boys who take Bruno on a hunting trip. They’re amazingly tolerant of this swishy goofball … only after a naked Bruno attempts several times to creep into one of their tents (“a bear ate my clothes …”) does the fellow react in redneck fashion, screaming expletives and shoving the cameraman.

And there are moments that simply must have been staged … like the scene of some National Guardsmen trying to get Bruno to stand at attention and do pushups.

How do Baron Cohen, Charles and their crew persuade people to participate in these humiliations – especially after “Borat” clued us in? Are we really so stupid and/or desperate to be in a movie that we’ll go along with anything? And shouldn’t people already in show biz be more savvy about signing a release form?

One suspects that the story of how “Bruno” got made is considerably more interesting than what’s actually on the screen.

In the meantime, we have this film, which is simultaneously funny, infuriating, daring, cruel and tasteless.


2 1/2 stars

Director: Larry Charles

Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten

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

Running time: 1:22

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