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‘Brüno’ has laughs, but won’t shock like ‘Borat’

Sacha Baron Cohen’s still outrageously funny, but we’re accustomed to his shtick.

Roger Ebert once commented that he was jealous of anyone who hadn’t yet seen “The Third Man,” since the pleasure of seeing that classic for the first time was an experience that couldn’t be repeated.

Turns out we can’t see “Borat” again for the first time either; while “Brüno” is often as envelope-pushing and outrageously hilarious as its predecessor, we now know what we’re getting from Sacha Baron Cohen when he’s in guerrilla-improv mode. But even if “Brüno” lacks the previous film’s sense of revelation, it still scores laughs out of hot-button topics.

This time, Baron Cohen stars as Brüno, the empty-headed gay host of an Austrian TV show about fashion. He loses his gig after making a scene at a runway show — never wear a Velcro suit backstage — and decides to go to America with his assistant’s assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) to become a celebrity.

Over the course of his fame-chasing foibles, he attempts to host a celebrity talk show (Paula Abdul makes tracks when he serves her sushi on the body of a nearly-naked middle-aged Mexican day laborer), to adopt an African baby, to make a celebrity sex tape (with exceedingly unwilling presidential candidate Ron Paul) and, finally, to become an ex-gay. (“I looked at big stars like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey,” notes Brüno, “and I realized they had one thing in common — they’re straight.”)

It all ends in a hilariously rousing climax that will be discussed for years in the extreme-cage-fighting community.

To answer the question I’ve been getting from friends and readers over the past few weeks: No, I don’t think that “Brüno” is homophobic. Baron Cohen uses the character’s in-your-face flamboyance and effeminacy to push people’s buttons about their reactions to gay men, leading to moments like the cage-fighting crowd chanting “Straight Pride!” before Brüno delivers them a shocking twist. (That the makers of “Brüno” could so easily whip up a frothing anti-gay mob is more than a little scary, but it’s definitely what they call a “teachable moment.”) The film gives a platform to hateful twits like the funeral-picketing Westboro Baptist Church and discredited anti-gay “researcher” Paul Cameron, who don’t need any outside help in looking ridiculous.

Even in scenes where Baron Cohen turns the act of anal sex into a sight-gag bonanza shouldn’t be taken as an insult by gay viewers — for one thing, they’re funny. Also, it’s worth remembering that homosexuality was considered so awful and taboo for so long that it was rendered invisible and unspeakable in the popular culture. If the mechanics of gay sex are now fodder for mainstream comedy, that’s as much as sign of progress (on a cultural level) as Iowa recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry or India overturning British colonial laws against sodomy.

And speaking of taboos, Baron Cohen continues his quest to strip the invisibility cloak from the on-screen penis; “Brüno” serves up male genitalia for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are maestros conducting a symphony of discomfort. In a scene where Brüno interviews the parents of child models, he keeps upping the ante to see if they’ll object to anything, but some of these stage moms and dads want the work for their kids so badly they’ll nod benignly when asked if their children would mind wearing Nazi uniforms or working around lit phosphorus. (“He loves it,” responds one father regarding the latter.)

One of the most brilliantly squirm-inducing moments has Brüno out on a hunting trip with three good-ol’-boy guides. When the Austrian comments that the stars in the heavens make him think of all the hot guys in the world, the camera keeps rolling, and rolling, and rolling as the three men stare silently at the ground, none of them daring to say a word or to look at Brüno or each other. You’ll laugh! You’ll wince!

Around the world with ‘Bruno’

Slideshow  12 photos

Around the world with ‘Bruno’

Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter-ego is making a spectacle of himself as his latest film premieres all over the planet.

The gay-related material is so strong that I wish there were more of it. Rather than set people off with Brüno’s clearly insane version of out-and-proudness, however, the movie too frequently makes its “regular folks” victims uncomfortable merely by putting them in the presence of a nearly-naked man with no sense of personal space. Who among us wouldn’t react to that? It feels like a lazy, cheap-shot way to get hidden-camera reactions from a character that has the capacity to provoke more interesting and meaningful freak-outs.

Baron Cohen, at least, deserves some kind of medal for his ability to stay in character even when being harassed by security guards, chased by Orthodox Jews or asking an infamous terrorist to kidnap him. He turns improv comedy into an extreme sport.

Follow Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .