Sacha Baron Cohen's Bruno: He's No Borat

Every lightning bolt Sacha Baron Cohen caught in a bottle with Borat three years ago turns to static in Bruno.

The new film, which backstrokes into theaters on a tidal wave of publicity over its coarse material, proves just how rare a cinematic feat was Baron Cohen's breakthrough role .

Borat blended scripted sequences with Candid Camera-style pranks into one hilarious romp across America. Bruno attempts the same formula, but the staged sequences fall pancake flat while the Punk'd moments feel equally hollow.

For the uninitiated, Bruno is Baron Cohen's gay Austrian fashionista, an irrepressible elf desperate for fame and fortune. His media platform, the Austrian show Funkyzeit, gets canceled after Bruno disrupts a Milan fashion show with his Velcro ensemble. Crushed, he cheers himself up by deciding to come to America to become "the biggest gay movie star since Schwarzenegger," an unfunny line that doesn't even make sense. He hooks up with a talent agent, shoots his own television pilot, and invites Paula Abdul to be interviewed while sitting on the backs of Mexican immigrant workers.

Laughing yet?

Bruno frontloads the gay sexual hijinks, which deadens their ability to shock us while showing how precious little new material Cohen cooked up for round two. The sexual gags are the only ones that work, but you'll feel more than a little dirty chuckling in your seat.

It's also a mean-spirited affair, especially when Bruno makes a sexual pass at former presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Yes, the film is relentlessly shocking but rarely in a clever or inspired way. Stay through the entire 82 minutes and you will be treated to the site of an undulating erect penis, more simulated gay sex than the entire run of Showtime's Queer as Folk, a black baby pinned to the cross a la Jesus, and an anal bleaching segment for good measure. Oh, and a guest on Bruno's show describes Jamie Lynn Spears' baby as "white trash" and suggests aborting it.

Real or staged? Who knows. Unfunny? Yup.

About two thirds through Bruno, the film finds its higher calling -- finally. It's a movie designed to expose homophobia in all its ugly forms.

But by now we simply don't trust the filmmakers.

The signature moment features Bruno and his put-upon assistant (Gustaf Hammarsten) making out before the start of a mixed martial arts bout. But director Larry Charles (Borat, Religulous) has already milked every prior reaction shot so that when we see jaws drop anew here, the sense of comic surprise is lost. Heck, Baron Cohen even incorporates the detestable God Hates Fags group into the film but can't find a way to wring laughter from their boorish behavior.

It's all so poorly constructed, it might leave potentially aggrieved interest groups feeling sorry for Baron Cohen rather than offended. Perhaps the most inflammatory moment comes during a clearly staged talk show sequence in which the entire audience is filled with stereotypical black people, their eyes popping over Bruno's antics. Don't be surprised if the Rev. Al Sharpton, currently on a roll after turning the late Michael Jackson into Rosa Parks 2.0, gets in a snit over the scene.

Worst of all, Baron Cohen can't make Bruno either lovable or laughable. He's just an overwrought gay figure who speaks in the kind of pidgin Austrian accent you'd find in a bad Carol Burnett Show sketch.

Now we know why that long-gestating Sprockets movie from Mike Myers never got off the ground.

Scene after scene build to what you expect to be a rich comic payoff and then ... nothing. And Baron Cohen, who clearly ad-libbed some killer material in Borat, can't save himself here. Where are the witty rejoinders which added an extra level of humor to Borat?

The film almost makes you rethink him as a comic force of nature. He can't even appear convincing in the movie's few dramatic moments, drawing emotional blanks rather than putting in the effort to show a flicker of humanity.

Say what you will about Borat, but his naivete made audiences sidle up to him no matter how outrageous his behavior proved.

A sharper assault on homophobia might have shown how uncomfortable people seem around gay behavior. Here, straights, gays, and transgendered alike would be wise to stay as far away from Bruno as possible.

Bruno wraps with a charity song parody featuring heavy hitters like Bono, Sting, and Snoop Dogg crooning along with Bruno. The notion of mocking celebrity sing-a-longs is as out of touch with today's funny bone as the rest of Bruno.