It's funny how some people just never learn.
The real genius, if that is what it is, behind Sacha Baron Cohen's crude, shocking and explosively funny Brüno is the fact that the filmmakers actually found enough gullible human targets. Surely they had thinned out after Borat became a hit and introduced Cohen to the cable-free parts of the planet that had never seen his characters torment the unwitting on Da Ali G Show.
But ignorance still happily blossoms unencumbered by pop-culture literacy or -- in some cases -- good dental hygiene. And so there are plenty of easy marks who take themselves far too seriously: pretentious fashionistas, homophobes, swingers, viewers of local reality TV shows, presidential candidates or stage parents so desperate they'll agree to put their toddlers in any unpalatable position for a shot at fame. (One father's statement that his baby is OK around lighted phosphorus is not even close to the most appalling set-up to which these people will agree.)
Directed by Larry Charles (Borat, Religulous), Brüno follows the same pattern as Borat: A flamboyant fish out of water -- in this case a gay Austrian model who longs to be an American celebrity, accompanied by his cheerfully smitten assistant (Gustaf Hammarsten) -- comes to the United States to make his mark, mingle with regular people who have no idea he's a character and expose any hypocrisy, stupidity or fear that lurks in their souls. If you are uncomfortable with the ''gotcha'' nature of prank comedy, know that not everyone comes off like an ignorant bigot: Paula Abdul fares slightly better than Ron Paul (who clearly needs a new publicist), and a karate teacher who instructs Brüno in how to fend off attackers wielding sex toys maintains a surprising degree of dignity.
Let us be clear: Brüno, which inexplicably eluded the dreaded NC-17 rating, is far more graphic than Borat, even when you consider that movie's hilarious, extended nude wrestling match. In Brüno the nudity is even more inventive and tasteless. If you are the sort for whom the phrase ''anal bleaching'' is upsetting, imagine how much more traumatized you will be if you actually see it. Cohen and Co. not only press up uncomfortably against the film's participants; they're after us, too, trying to find our breaking point.
But pushing the envelope is the point of comedy, and Cohen is undoubtedly the most fearless performer alive today, whether he's being chased by violent Hasidic Jews in the Middle East, insulting ''King Osama'' to a terrorist or making out with another guy during a cage fighting match in Arkansas, perhaps the most dangerous movie stunt since Johnny Knoxville rode that giant rocket in Jackass Number Two. The details of how the cast and production crew survived this film deserve a documentary all their own.
Brüno's outrageousness may indicate that this particular humor well must eventually run dry for Cohen; finding enough fodder for a third film would prove something quite unnerving about the human race. But even if this is the end, we must applaud his audacity, even if we can't always bear to watch it in action. Is this comedic genius? As Brüno would say: Ich think so.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten.
Director: Larry Charles.
Screenwriter: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer, Peter Baynham.
Producers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Monica Levinson, Dan Mazer, Jay Roach.
A Universal Pictues release. Running time: 83 minutes. Pervasive strong and crude sexual content, graphic nudity, language. Playing at area theaters.
Sacha Baron Cohen in "Brüno".