''Bruno'' causes a commotion -- Accidental ''stars'' of the film are angry over Sacha Baron Cohen's homophobic expose

By Josh Rottenberg
July 10, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Spoiler Alert!

As anyone who saw him swan-dive into Eminem’s crotch at the MTV Movie Awards can attest, Brüno knows how to make an entrance. The question is whether Sacha Baron Cohen’s flamboyant fashionista will be able to outshine the crowded field of summer movies.

Anticipation for Brüno, Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his 2006 hit Borat, is high, and Universal Pictures’ guerrilla marketing campaign has been smart. But the film, which sashayed into theaters on July 10, carried some baggage — and not the Louis Vuitton kind. Chronicling the fictional Austrian fashion reporter’s delusional efforts to become an A-list Hollywood star, Brüno packs in enough staggeringly un-PC humor to test the tolerance of the most ardent shock-comedy fan. For example, Brüno trades an iPod for an African baby whom he names O.J., and crashes a swingers’ party complete with threesomes and S&M. The most outrageous stunts are ostensibly meant to expose homophobia; here Baron Cohen is treading a fine line. Many moviegoers might be turned off by the film, deeming it ”too gay,” while some gay rights activists have expressed concern that Brüno may do their cause real harm by promoting negative and cartoonish images of homosexuality. Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs at GLAAD, who attended an early screening of the film last April, said parts of it were troubling: ”It was definitely a mixed reaction. Some of the sketches hit their mark, and others missed their mark and hit the community.” Still, Cathy Renna, who runs a public relations firm centered on gay issues, is sanguine about the film’s ultimate impact: ”I think it will prompt a lot of discussion. And the majority of people who walk into this film will hopefully be in on the joke.”

The ones who are steaming the most are the ”stars” of the film who weren’t in on the joke. Baron Cohen is already being sued by a California woman who claims she was injured in an altercation with the star during filming, and judging by the raft of lawsuits that followed Borat, more litigation is bound to come. One of Brüno‘s most prominent targets, Republican congressman Ron Paul, was lured into a supposed interview on economics, only to see it devolve into an awkward attempted seduction. ”They lied to us,” says Paul’s spokesperson, Rachel Mills. ”Congressman Paul thinks it’s unfortunate that this kind of crass humor gets rewarded monetarily.” Paul himself has drawn fire for referring to Brüno as ”queer” on camera, but Mills responds, ”There are two TV shows that use that term. He certainly didn’t mean it to be offensive.” The Alabama National Guard was similarly punked by Baron Cohen and his crew, who filmed scenes of Brüno undergoing training at Fort McClellan. ”With our country at war, it’s important to support our military,” says the guard’s public affairs officer, Lieut. Col. Cynthia Bachus. ”For somebody to try to deceive us and make fun of what we do for personal reasons — it is disturbing.”

Baron Cohen, Brüno director Larry Charles, and Universal Pictures all declined to comment for this story, but they’re probably happy to see the movie pushing so many sensitive buttons. After all, when it comes to generating buzz — and box office — controversy never goes out of style.