Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno, which follows 2002's mostly overlooked Ali G Indahouse and 2006's hugely successful Borat, is a lot like its rampantly gay, Viennese protagonist: The film may have only the best of intentions, but it tries way too hard and ends up being shallow, superficial and only sporadically funny.
It's certainly a far cry from the cultural beat-down of Borat, which in hindsight proves to be a surprisingly good-natured and even sweet mockumentary/provocation when compared to the downright mean-spiritedness of this new(-ish) Cohen incarnation. As in Borat, he takes the Brüno character around the country for a series of prankish encounters with puzzled Americans.
But Brüno is less specific and less interesting - and therefore less funny - than the dim Kazakhstani reporter of his previous film, and the movie feels far less like a skewering of puritanical American homophobia than it does an excuse to string together a series of jury-rigged sketches and encounters with the likes of Ron Paul (who exits in a queer-phobic huff after Brüno comes on to him in a hotel room) that probably wouldn't have passed muster on Da Ali G Show.
While it's certainly possible that a theater full of Southern-fried rednecks might not get the joke, or care to, the tone is so ill-tempered here that you almost feel bad for all the cultural flotsam and jetsam on parade. That includes the group of Deliverance-esque bunny hunters who accept Brüno into their midst (why?) and the Dallas-area talk-show crowd that recoils at the sight of Brüno's newest fashion accessory: an African baby he "swapped" for an iPod on his way to the U.S.
Other problems are purely esthetic - Cohen lets his Austrian accent slip several times into his native Cambridge - and the film suffers mightily from a slapdash style that simply doesn't feel intentional. Brüno never comes close to the inspired comic/cultural lunacy of Borat, or even the dunderhead fearlessness of Ali G.