Opens Friday throughout the Triangle

In Brüno, director Larry Charles and writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen set out to lampoon celebrity and homophobia. Through a series of outlandish pranks they point out that … well, I’m not sure that they point out much of anything.

Baron Cohen’s Brüno is a fictional creation that he and Charles put into ostensibly real situations (I have trouble believing that many of these scenes aren’t at least partially faked), such as showing a focus group a television pilot episode that features a talking penis, or serving appetizers to Paula Abdul off a naked migrant worker. Brüno’s vacuous interest in fame and his cartoonish expression of his sexuality seem meant to evoke responses from people that will expose truths about America’s widespread homophobia and obsession with celebrity. But Baron Cohen’s targets usually respond as reasonably as possible given the outlandish situation. Baron Cohen flounders in the face of patience, and as he tries to create a funny scene, the joke is lost.

For example, when U.S. congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul storms out of a hotel room because Brüno is coming onto him, it’s because he’s being sensible, not homophobic. A guy who gets testy because Brüno interrupts his fun at an orgy isn’t hateful for getting mad (even if he’s icky for being at an orgy). In fact, it’s worth noting that the creepy orgy guy is totally game for Brüno’s fey sense of humor for much longer than most straight men would be. In this gag, as in many, the joke becomes not the way people react to Brüno, but how far Baron Cohen will go to get them to react.

In most scenes, we aren’t laughing at intolerance, we’re laughing at Brüno. Look at the gay guy’s skimpy clothes. Look at the gay guy’s crazy sex habits. Look at the gay guy act like an oblivious buffoon. It’s as if Baron Cohen is baiting his audience by showing what homophobic rubes his stooges are to distract from how much he’s making fun of his own gay character.

I don’t think that Baron Cohen’s brand of gay minstrelsy is offensive or nasty. (In fact, it often misfires because of its harmlessness.) I think he wants to be a provocateur, but he doesn’t know how or who to provoke. Like Brüno, who tries to find outlandish ways to attract the spotlight because he has no real talents, Baron Cohen uses caricature to get broad laughs because he has no real insights.

Even when we are not laughing at Brüno, we are always meant to be laughing at someone behaving ridiculously, like the ditsy twins who think Darfur is in Iraq. Baron Cohen congratulates his audience for not being sub-mental, making sure there is always someone on screen to feel smarter than. When I described this to a friend, he nailed it by saying that it sounded like those mean-spirited and unfunny “Jaywalking” segments that Jay Leno did on the Tonight Show, in which he conducted man-on-the-street interviews to provide comic fodder for his viewers.

Provocation, progressive troublemaking and sharp parody come from challenging an audience’s opinion of itself, not confirming it. In Brüno, Baron Cohen lets his audience laugh at his über-homosexual antics while making them feel like they’re participating in something more edgy than it really is. While I assume that Baron Cohen and Charles mean this film to be a challenge to (or at least a goof on) American stupidity and homophobia, it’s more a product of those things than an affront to them.