Of the three characters Sacha Baron Cohen created for Da Ali G Show, the homosexual Austrian fashionista Brüno was always the least funny (though, it must be mentioned, the least funny of a very funny batch), so it's not necessarily surprising or disappointing on its face that Brüno, a shock-comedy pseudo-documentary starring featuring that character in his first feature-length role, should be less amusing than 2006's marvelous, game-changing Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In that film, Cohen played a clueless Eastern European journalist who wandered across the U.S. like an unguided missile, stumbling across regular, everyday Americans, very nice people all, and getting them (without much effort) to reveal the most shockingly racist and xenophobic sentiments. It was a nasty vicious satire of the worst tendencies of American exceptionalism and cultural superiority; it was also one of the funniest movies made in years, if not decades.

Brüno, which follows a very similar narrative track, isn't without its charms; but its failings in relation to its older brother are of a more dire nature than simply failing to possess the same novelty and invention, something it of course wouldn't be able to do of its very nature. The greater problem is that Brüno simply isn't all that smart, and it isn't all that funny - and the latter of these points especially seems easy to miss in all the debate surrounding the film, about whether or not it is cruel to its subjects (no more than they've earned), or bad for gay representation (as much as Borat was anti-Semitic). Funny covers a lot of sins; all sins, perhaps. Funny certainly makes up for the wee tiny sin of being offensive, indeed, funny thrives on being offensive. Brüno is at its best when it is also at its most nasty-minded and aggressive, and I have some suspicion that I'll be squarely in the minority when I say that the film's absolute biggest mistake is that it's not aggressive enough.

Brüno is a much plottier thing than I'd expected: after an incident in Milan, Brüno is blacklisted from the European fashion world, abandoned by his Pygmy lover, and fired from his beloved Austrian fashion chat show Funkyzeit mit Brüno. Petrified by his sudden lack of cachet, he hits upon the idea of becoming one of those celebrities who are famous mostly for being famous, and to kick start that process he heads to Los Angeles to find some way of getting his name in the headlines once again, whether it's by solving the Middle East conflict, adopting an Africa baby, or becoming a poster boy for the Ex-Gay movement.

With that much narrative to plow through, it's probably inevitable that Brüno had to devote quite a lot of its running time to staged moments and not so much to scenes where Cohen in disguise shocks, terrifies, or angers some workaday Americans who aren't in on the joke. Which is a shame, because the staging generally speaking doesn't work, and the improvised scenes with normal people (the very same stuff Brüno was invented for back in his Ali G days) generally speaking do, although rarely as well as they did in Borat. I am not, Lord knows, going to go through all the scenes and say, "this is what you ought to find funny, this is what you won't". Broadly speaking, though, I expect that a lot of people, even those who have been fans of Cohen for years, are going to find a lot of restless down moments to muscle through.

Even some of the moments that work tremendously well - such as a scene where Cohen shows a test audience footage of a dancing penis, or his inordinately long encounter with a psychic who is heroically reserved when Brüno starts making out (and then some) with his ghost lover - are a different kind of successful from Borat: there was stilletto-sharp satire in that movie, whereas the funniest bits in most of Brüno are about watching other people becoming hugely embarrassed. There's no insight or satire involved; you don't need to be a homophobe - or even straight! - to find it awkward when a man mimes fellatio in your office for three minutes. It's funny, but it's "stupid" funny.

When, however, the film drifts into intelligence and satire, something it only does sporadically, it finally achieves brilliance. The Paula Abdul scene, gorgeously mocking celebrity cluelessness and robotic commitment to talking points; the hunting scene, in which Cohen seems to be genuinely risking his life to get a cheap laugh; and above all things else, the film's pièce de résistance, in which Cohen manages, without even trying very hard, to get parents to agree to submit their infant children to the most tasteless and dangerous situations if it will give them a professional modelling credit. It's the peak of the movie's satire of celebrity-worship, although even that's a double-edged thing; because if celebrity-worship is the best thing Cohen could think up to mock with this character, he wasn't trying very hard. Brüno looked for all the world like it was going to do to American homophobia what Borat did to American isolationism and condescension to other cultures. I still think a Brüno film like that could be a masterwork, but it only crops up a few times, mostly in the back half, of the Brüno that we were given. A missed opportunity.

So all that said, Brüno is still mostly entertaining; but it's not very memorable, insightful, probing, or revolutionary. If you show people a dick, they will cringe; however amusing that might be, it's hardly a game-changing sociological observation. But at least it's funny, and there are so very few funny comedies these days that it has to at least get a few points for that. Just don't go looking for top-shelf satire, and it should be a fine, painless 82 minutes.