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Full frontal funny

FILM CRITIC

Bruno, the latest character to be pulled out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s closet, is a comic subversive of such wild extremes that brother Borat has got to be blushing his way out the backdoor in disguise.

If you find yourself in a similar flush, do resist the urge to flee. Like a wayward love child of Lenny Bruce and the Three Stooges, Bruno is an idiot savant of penetration -- breaking through borders, boundaries and anything that resembles good taste on his way to whipping up as much cultural anarchy as he can. I would guess Bruno is holding on to an R rating for this sublimely spicy souffle by the skin of his, well, let’s just not say.

As a towering gay Austrian fashionista who’s been waxed stem to stern, Baron Cohen brings a multiplicity of stereotypical sins to bear as he searches out the line between social satire and garden-variety sacrilege. Though I’m sure if he ever found the actual “line,” he would immediately flounce across it, possibly in some fetching bondage wear, with director Larry Charles and the rest of the guerrilla camera crew in tow.

It’s the subtext running through all of Baron Cohen’s work: Whatever naked truth I’m exposing, it’s only for the greater good; if you’re uncomfortable, that’s your problem. Besides, the whole boundary-pushing business is historically ever so thankless a task, just ask martyrs, comics and politicians. So let me take a moment to thank Baron Cohen, our very own hall monitor for humanity, for all the necessary havoc he’s wreaked for the rest of us.

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Like Borat, Bruno is on a journey. Technically his destination is Hollywood, where fame perfumes the air, but really that’s just a ruse for more rounds of the gotcha game Baron Cohen always plays to brilliant effect. Watching is akin to that horror film feeling: the cringe as the unsuspecting soul approaches the trap, the wince as it snaps closed and the hysteria-tinged laughter as the flailing begins. It’s strangers Bruno has his eye on, but sometimes I think the unsuspecting soul might be us.

The film opens with a “What would Larry, Curly and Moe do?” moment, if they were X-rated, gay and had a lot of playtime on their hands. There is mostly unmentionable usage of equipment and substances accompanied by a lot of broad physical naked silliness in an extensive sex scene featuring Bruno at the opulent height of his European television talk show career. Ah, the glory days.

But as so often happens, excess brings a fall from grace, and the rest of the film is spent as Bruno tries to resurrect his career. That is, of course, if you buy into the idea that simply being famous is a career, which the ubiquitousness of the Kardashians, the Bachelorettes, the Housewives and the Hills would most definitely attest to. Sigh.

If “Bruno” is to be believed, what a heart of darkness the pursuit of fame has become. This is apocalypse now. Fortunately for Bruno, camouflage is still a viable fashion option, so it’s a jungle he can thrive in.

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Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer and Jeff Schaffer are responsible for the stun gun of a script that really starts as Bruno wonders how he might become as famous as that other Austrian offspring, Hitler, just in case they haven’t shocked you into submission with the earlier bacchanal.

To reach this new low, Bruno stumbles through the anorexia of Milan’s fashion week, adopts a black African orphan he names O.J., creates a talk show with Mexican gardeners as benches for B-list celebrities, meets with the head honcho of a terrorist cell that specializes in suicide bombings, does a casting session with stage parents who are almost as scary and, in a final bid at stardom, undertakes a gay-to-straight makeover that takes him into “Deliverance” country where tempers are short and guns are loaded.

Pushing the hot buttons of racism, sexism, egoism, fill-in-the-blank-ism has always been Baron Cohen’s specialty. Easy targets picked for maximum impact -- it doesn’t take Jon Stewart to know that beer-soaked cage-fighting fans will throw chairs if the combatants start kissing. Yet when the target is an actual terrorist with armed bodyguards, you have to wonder whether it’s really worth the risk for Baron Cohen to get that laugh.

The actor, an awkwardly tall British comic who always seems shy as himself, is fearless when he strips down as someone else. As Bruno, he’s at his most naked: a guy who can comfortably order TV porn in his hotel room by clenching a remote control in his lower cheeks; or can turn his penis into a full-frontal swinging trapeze act of sorts, a multifaceted member that can also sing out the word “Bruno” on cue. So clearly we’re talking about someone with, um, talent.

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Baron Cohen’s talent is actually part of the problem. One of the questions dogging the film has been how it can top the pure invention and surprise of “Borat.” The answer? Go worldwide, go celebrity, go more outrageous and, as often as possible, go naked. That will buy you giant waves of laughter, but hanging out fame’s dirty laundry does not trump Kazakhstan’s cultural education, if for no other reason than we’ve had front row seats to the celebrity mess for years.

Ultimately, we’re left searching for those moments when the film succeeds in revealing something about ourselves and the times that we don’t already know -- though I guess the stage mother who agreed to get her toddler liposuction might qualify.

Lenny Bruce famously said that “satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it.” It explains why the words that bought Bruce obscenity trials in the ‘60s are many of the same ones that will no doubt soon be funding a lap pool or some other nicety in Baron Cohen’s backyard.

But will a swinging, singing penis buy anything more than a pack of cigarettes and cough 40 years hence? I don’t think so.

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In “Bruno,” Baron Cohen tries to serve up an interactive, down-market street version of the provocative intellectual freestyle that Bruce mastered in comedy clubs before they started banning him. Both comics succeed in eliciting laughter and discomfort in equal measure.

But it often seems with Baron Cohen that we’re only getting the first half of the joke. Yes, people will look shocked in an airport terminal if your baggage turns out to be a black baby in a box. But maybe it’s not only the boxed baby that’s horrified them but also the film crew.

And does the outrage from a largely black audience to the O.J. baby on a Dallas talk show speak to their stupidity, as the film suggests, or is Baron Cohen being punked by a group that understands its role as part of this absurdist theater better than he does?

With Bruce there was always a biting moral to the story. With Larry, Curly and Moe, the message was delivered with a bruising bop on the head. “Bruno” is easy to dismiss as salacious comedy on the cheap, and at times that’s what it feels like. But in a world where mercy is a celebrity adoption and the only pain an adulterous governor feels is his own (“Do Cry for Me Argentina”?), Baron Cohen’s instincts for outrage are spot on. It’s not insight we need at all right now, but a very sharp bonk on the head.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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‘Bruno’

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MPAA rating: R for pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: In general release


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