'Brüno' wants to be in fashion

Sacha Baron Cohen isn't fooling as many people this time around

"Bruno," Sacha Baron Cohen's shock-and-ach du lieber follow-up to "Borat," is a miss-or-hit mockmentary aimed at turning another of his "Ali G Show" guises into a pop cultural phenomenon.

But "Borat" was such a hit that it's a struggle to find people gullible enough to not recognize the star. And in many "bits" developed for this gay Austrian fashionista's assault on Fashion Week in Milan, the Middle East, clueless cogs in L.A.'s dream machine and rural America's rube-eoisie, the strain shows.

The conceit here is that Bruno is host of "Funkyzeit Mit Bruno," a trend-setting Austrian fashion show that plays like a "Saturday Night Live" "Sprockets" tribute.

Bruno craves fame. He wants to be "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler." But when his TV show is canceled after a backstage fashion show debacle (a worthy target), he loses his lover, Diesel, and his direction. How can he become famous now?

Maybe by making peace in the Middle East - traipsing around Jerusalem in short shorts (Hasidic Jews chase him). Perhaps an "accessory" African baby adoption (a "gayby") is the answer - watch passengers' jaws drop when the infant is collected from a box in the airport luggage carousel.

The targets seem more hapless this time - Paula Abdul shows up for an interview and Bruno has her sit on Hispanic hired help. Presidential hopeful Ron Paul bails out of a chat the moment Bruno starts stripping. A "terrorist" leader in Lebanon gives him the boot when Bruno comments on "King Osama's dirty wizard" beard. Few people worth mocking are fooled by the disguise anymore.

Baron Cohen and his partner in ambush-interviewing, Larry Charles of "Borat" and "Religulous," seem to have a taste for the twisted and juvenile view of gay sex, all kinky appliances and gerbil jokes. They want to mock homophobia but do it by getting into people's faces with comical fetishism.

There's a love story between the star and his adoring assistant (Gustaf Hammarsten) that doesn't play, but does show off their command of German and Hammarsten's willingness to go just as far as Baron Cohen, when the chips are down.

There are plenty of laughs, a few of them explosive. Baron Cohen's determination to let uncomfortable pauses and the unblinking camera get under the veneer of civility of his subjects can be hilarious.

But too often, "Bruno" feels like "Borat's" weak-wristed brother, too much of it just a gay cliche aimed straight at the American bigot belt. An elaborate set-up in which fans of blood-sport "cage-matches" can seem brave and pathetic. These aren't the best and the brightest that we're laughing at here.

We could fret over all the movies Baron Cohen could have followed "Borat" with, but at least "Bruno" closes the book on this part of his career. At this point, there's nobody worth fooling who still will be fooled by his shtick.