Laugh-out-loud amusing and “outrageous” as it sometimes is, Sacha Baron Cohen‘s Bruno (Universal, 7.10) — oddly — isn’t all that funny. Certainly not in a convulsive sense. It is sort of heh-heh funny in a dry, observational, “is that all there is?” sense… but what’s that? It’s basically a series of misanthropic “screw you” jokes — 82 minutes worth of effete put-on gags, each one meant to provoke homophobic reactions to SBC’s flamboyantly gay, blonde-coiffed Austrian fashion reporter. The point being to “get” the constipated illiberal, small-minded types by making them look bad.

All I can say is that clips and promotions and put-ons are one thing, but when you sit down for a movie you expect a certain build-up of dramatic and emotional elements — you need to see characters and story threads start to take shape and transform and “pay off” in some way. Bruno never even tries to get off the ground in this sense.

Neither did Borat, I realize, but this time the lack of undertow felt like more of an issue. I said to myself about 20 minutes in, “Wow…this isn’t happening.” I said the same thing at the 40-minute mark. Although Bruno has loads of great bits and goofs and snide attitude to spread around. Let no one say it doesn’t score from time to time.

The problem for me is that (a) the tread has worn down on the tires since Borat — a comedy of this kind just doesn’t feel as out-there brash as it did three years ago, in part because it’s harder to believe that the encounters in the film aren’t staged or performed by the victims, (b) the humor is more than a bit cruel and misanthropic at times, and (c) SBC’s Bruno character simply doesn’t work as well as the revolutionary Borat.

Borat was funnier because it was at least faintly conceivable that a dorky moustachioed TV correspondent from a small Kazakhstan backwater could be that culturally clueless. But Bruno is no idiot — he’s from Vienna, knows the fashion world, knows the rules of the game. The joke is supposed to be that he’s so blinded by ego, arrogance, ambition and random sexual arousal that he doesn’t realize how offensive and irritating he is to everyone he meets. And that’s just not buyable.

So what we’re left with is just watching SBC doing his best to put people on and make them squirm as best he can. I’m obviously gay, you’re perhaps a little uncomfortable with gay men, and so I’m going to up the ante more and more until that discomfort tips into some form of hostility (usually suppressed). Over and over and over. Because I’m convinced that you’re a yahoo of some kind, and the point of this film is to expose you as same and too bad if you don’t like it, Ugly American.

For me the best Bruno material has already been seen in the trailers and clip reels. The marketing campaign has been amazing. There’s certainly nothing in the film as good as SBC dropping into Eminem‘s lap on the MTV Award show. Or his recent Tonight Show appearance with Conan. All right, the Arkansas wrestling match sequence comes close, although (again) it’s not really all that hah-hah funny.

My favorite Bruno moment comes when Harrison Ford is confronted by a microphone-wielding SBC and barks a harsh “fuck off!” as he gets into a car. Why did I savor this in particular? Because it’s the only time that a victim expresses more hostility towards SBC than what he/she is getting from SBC to begin with. In short, Ford trumps. He’s saying in effect, “I don’t want to hear it, just go away, you’re not worth it, don’t even start…I’m ahead of you!”

I also liked a visual gag that I’m not going to spoil (although Variety‘s Todd McCarthy already has in his review) that involves a certain part of the male anatomy talking and gyrating.

Who was the first Bruno? Andreas Voutsinas, the thin, devil-bearded gay guy in Mel Brooks‘ original film of The Producers (’68). His character’s name was Carmen Ghia. He was living with Christopher Hewett‘s Roger De Bris (the guy Gene Wilder was referring to when he said “Max, he’s wearing a dress!”), and his first Bruno bit was when he, Wilder and Zero Mostel take a brief elevator ride together and he does a kind of suppressed-erotic-writhing routine.

I agree with McCarthy that the “gotcha!” sequence in which SBC pretends to come on to Ron Paul, who ran in last year’s Republican primaries (and whom my son Dylan was for until he switched to Obama), is “noxious.” When Paul realizes what’s going on he freaks and shows his true homophobic colors, but it didn’t feel fair or right.

I don’t want to sound overly negative here. I did laugh several times during Bruno. I came out in a relatively okay mood, wasn’t pissed off. But a feeling that it didn’t really make it began to grow in the days that followed. I tried writing about it yesterday but the review wouldn’t come, probably because I was torn between admitting to myself that I laughed and chortled at times and also realizing that the film has hostility and believability problems.

Remember that moment in Mad Dog and Glory when Robert DeNiro‘s cop character tells Bill Murray‘s mafioso character (who does a little stand-up) that jokes don’t work as well when they’re “aimed out” and that people tend to laugh more when they’re “aimed a little more in” — i.e., at the teller?