This movie is one of two things: a failure, or a product of homophobia. I'm not really sure which.
I started from the assumption that Bruno was cut from the same mould as Borat - that Cohen was adopting an absurd persona in order to elicit funny/damning reactions from ordinary citizens. The state of homophobia in America today + laughs.
But Bruno doesn't get much of a reaction from anyone. Most people respond to his pranks with a stony, "I'll just pretend this isn't happening," impassiveness. When Bruno arranges an interview with Ron Paul, only to corner him in a hotel bedroom and attempt a clumsy seduction, Ron Paul stares fixedly at a newspaper and refuses to take the bait.
The set-up, where Ron Paul tries to behave professionally while Bruno does everything he can to prevent it, is similar to an incident that took place last week...at the Ultimate Fighting Championship. One of the fighters, "Rampage" Jackson, started dry humping a reporter, Heather Nichols, during an interview.
Here's the video if you want to see it (and if I'm able to embed it):
Rampage Dry Humps Cagepotato Reporter - Watch more Funny Videos
The interview sparked a lot of controversy, but even in the UFC - a testosterone-drenched, hyper-macho sport organization - there's no question that Rampage's behavior was inappropriate, and is generally described as what it was: sexual harassment.
On the other hand, I also think Nichols has gauged her audience well by being a good sport about it. In an interview Nichols did over at Sports Illustrated about the incident, she maintains a positive attitude but doesn't hesitate to call a spade a spade:
Jimmy Traina: What did you think when Rampage started, um, getting frisky? Did you think it was funny or did you take offense?You know what's funny about this interview? If you changed "Nichols" to "Ron Paul" and "Rampage" to "Bruno", the whole thing would still make sense. And Rampage's attitude, which is so clear, sheds an interesting light on Sacha Baron Cohen's prank - Rampage is opportunistic and smug, taking advantage of Nichols' good will (and fear for her livelihood) in order to demean her.
Nichols: At first I was just shocked when he grabbed me, and all I could think was, "Oh my gosh, what is he doing?!" Then I tried to play along a little bit because I knew he was trying to be funny, but after about the first 5-10 seconds, it was just plain awkward. I kept thinking, "What should I do? Knee him? Keep going?" So I decided to keep asking questions, assuming he would stop if I did that. So I asked another question, and he kept going. I asked ANOTHER question, and he kept going. At this point I was just freaking out, but still trying to be a professional and ask all the questions I was assigned to ask, and this has been interpreted by some viewers as me liking it and egging him on. This was definitely not the case. I was hired to do a job, which was to interview Rampage, so I decided to put up with his shenanigans and finish the interview.
Traina: Has he apologized since then?
Nichols: No, not at all. He was very, very pleased with himself.
What Nichols should have done - and probably would have done, if the balance of power had been different - is something like what Ron Paul did in Bruno: when she decided that the prank had gone too far, she would have said "Enough," she would have walked out, and she would have been openly angry about it.
Some of the "ordinary citizens" in the movie are clearly homophobic - the hunters that Bruno camps with, for example, or the swingers at the party he crashes. But there is not enough shame about homophobia for its mere existence to trigger a gotcha moment. And the hunters and swingers, like Ron Paul, are very restrained in their responses to Bruno's antics - they seem positively dignified in comparison.
So, ultimately, the more Bruno tries to humiliate his victims the better they look. While Bruno's character is increasingly charmless, the homophobes in the movie appear to be reasonable, polite, and tolerant. If Bruno is an attempt to expose American homophobia, it's a failure.
You know who really looks bad in this movie? Bruno himself. He's narcissistic, superficial, stupid, and insensitive. He doesn't have anything like Borat's naivete, no characteristic that makes his bad qualities forgivable. I think the nation of Kazakhstan registered an official protest about the character of Borat, and how badly it misrepresented the nation; as valid as their complaint was, Borat was so clearly a foil, an ends-justify-the-means vehicle of cultural criticism.
I don't think that can be said about Bruno, and as a result the offensiveness of the character itself remains front and center. Not offensive because Bruno is flamboyantly gay. Offensive because Bruno consistently refers to his anus as his "Auschwitz" and makes flattering comments about Hitler. Since Bruno saves his most provocatively anti-semitic comments for the staged portions of the movie, not the documentary portions, and given that Cohen himself is a committed Jew, what is the reason for that?
Why is the character, who treats every other person in the movie with the level of consideration granted to his adopted child/accessory, "O.J.", conceived as a borderline sociopath?
It really seems to me that the object of Cohen's animosity here isn't the torpid, complacently sinister American public - it's the character he inhabits, Bruno. And as such, the movie is itself an example of homophobia, not a strike against it.
Plus - last but not least - it's not funny. I think I laughed a couple of times while I watched it. A total waste of time.