bruno 263x3002 Bruno: Vulgar, Short and Anal Retentive“Bruno”: there appeared to be a problem with Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film when it was kept away from New York reviewers and columnists until the last minute. Don’t the studios know this is a dead giveaway? Showing a film only in Los Angeles means there’s trouble. Eventually, the truth will come out.

And so I caught a big all-media screening of “Bruno” last night in L.A. It opens on Friday, at the end of an immense publicity blitz. Something about Cohen as Bruno landing upside down on Eminem’s lap at the MTV Video Awards — and then the whole thing admittedly being planned — spoke of desperation, didn’t it?

The fact is, “Borat” was vulgar, too. But it was delivered with a certain sweetness. The Borat character had a hapless quality that made his adventures all the more hilarious. When real people were hurt along the way, Borat couldn’t really be blamed. He just lucked into the situations (even if they were staged–hello, Pamela Anderson).

“Bruno” — a blissfully short comedy under 85 minutes– is quite different. He is as unlikeable as Borat was charming. Bruno seems angry and hellbent on skewering people around him. He succeeds. Mostly, he impales the audience. His victims now seem victimized, from the pastor who specializes in counseling “converted gays” to the hunters who listen to Bruno’s jabbering about “Sex and the City.”

A lot of it is set up this time. Too many people knew about Cohen’s tricks. You feel it. Cohen and director Larry Charles must have too because now they resort to talking penises and other crudities that would have been beneath Borat. Even his assistant, Azamat, would have refused to do what his bland successor, Lutz, is forced into, such as anal bleaching. Let’s put it this way: Bruno does not wax poetic.

A big part of the problem is that Bruno, unlike Borat, has no backstory. We don’t know who he is, and I’m not sure if Cohen does either. The movie starts out as a parody of the fashion business, turns into perhaps a satire about fame, and then just devolves into some kind of coarse gay whoopie cushion j0ke. No sympathy is created for Bruno. He’s just a boor from the start. It’s offensive, but only because it’s demeaning to the audience.

Is there funny stuff? Sure. There are lots of good one liners. All the German shtick owes its life to Mel Brooks, such as Bruno’s desire to be “the biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler.” He refers to his posterior as his Auschwitz. Cohen’s comic delivery is impeccable. My favorite bits include a bunch of Mexicans acting as furniture, and the much publicized staged TV Talk show where Bruno shows off his adopted African child. But the good ideas are just strung together, there’s no character development, and no real idea of where this is all heading — into a dead end.

Will there be fallout? Ron Paul won’t be too pleased. Neither will Kevin Spacey, John Travolta or Tom Cruise. Luckily, Paula Abdul was in on her joke. Mel Gibson, a sight joke, is referred to as “the Fuhrer.”

When all else fails, bring in the celebrities: Over the end credits, Bruno stages a charity single a la “We Are the World” with Elton John, Bono, Sting, Chris Martin, and Snoop Dogg. Why, exactly? Who knows? It’s funny enough, but this kind of send up used to be done as well or better on “Saturday Night Live.”

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