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Is Brüno savvy social commentary, or offensive polemic? Riotous satire, or simply misguided?

Nov. 24 2009, Published 8:36 a.m. ET

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The DVD, which arrived this week, reveals that it may be all that and more. In new commentary, writer/producer Sacha Baron Cohen tacitly addresses the debate that has swirled around Brüno since it hit theaters last June, revealing his intentions through anecdotes and discussion with director Larry Charles. As the titular star, Cohen plays a gay TV host from Austria who travels to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a big celebrity. Flamboyant, brash and over-the-top, Brüno's interviews intentionally push boundaries and ravage cultural mores, much in the way that Cohen's other alter ego, Ali G, did in his long-running television show and feature film.

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Watching our fearless fashionista travel everywhere from a terrorist holdout in the Middle East to a charity PR firm in Los Angeles, Brüno's sexuality is less an end than the means through which Cohen hopes to disguise his ulterior motives. With a penchant for pushing buttons and a German-inflected potty mouth, Brüno distracts his targets with exaggerated mannerisms and outlandish outfits (vinyl is one of his favorite materials). It's not hard to see how Cohen could be criticized for taking his homosexual schtick too far (the tongue-heavy mime scene may be a bit much), but he plays Brüno to such extremes that the character is ultimately just a conduit for the film's real agenda.

While exposing homophobia worldwide, Brüno's relentless quest for fame allows him to skewer our infatuation with it one convention at a time, from our obsession with celebrity babies to the ubiquity of celebrity causes -- not to mention the power of a good, old-fashioned sex tape. Don't get too excited, though: none of the politicians he targeted took the bait.

In one particularly agonizing scene, Brüno interviews socialite Brittny Gastineau, and asks her to analyze photos of a fetus. During the DVD commentary, Cohen says his vision for the segment was to test the limits, to see how far Gastineau would go in criticizing the aesthetics of an unborn baby. Testing limits is, of course, Cohen's core intellectual and artistic interest. The ire he raises -- both on camera and off -- is well-publicized, such as his Brüno interview with Paula Abdul in which he gets her to sit on a Mexican man on all fours. Discussing the scene, Cohen's fascination with human psychology is clear when he references a landmark sociological exam developed after World War II that explored the unnerving nature of human obedience.

Yet for Cohen, entertainment is his means of experimentation, and Brüno is his lab. He keeps things light (literally) with activities like a visit to a genital-bleaching parlor in Los Angeles and a velcro-suit debacle at a Milan fashion show. At times, his taste is undeniably questionable. But his intellect and pursuit of satire -- all wrapped up in an accessible, ridiculous package -- are unmistakable.

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