Over the top is not a place most performers want to be. It's generally an embarrassing spot to find yourself in, knowing you've gone too far, and people are watching.
Unless you're Sacha Baron Cohen.
For the outrageous English sketch artist, over the top is where the fun begins. It's the starting point to see how much further he can go.
Illustrating the point, Baron Cohen's "Bruno" made it to the top of the movie box office charts early this week - at least until Harry, Hermione and Ron returned to make things right again.
In case you've missed all the publicity - including a swan dive into Eminem's lap at a recent music awards show - Bruno is an Austrian poster boy for all things gay. In the movie he has come to the U.S. on a quest to become a global celebrity.
Like Borat - the bumbling, bigoted Kazakhstan journalist visiting America that Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles previously unleashed on film audiences - the stranger-in-a-strange land format allows the satire to go both ways.
Bruno himself is a sendup of swishy stereotypes, from his dewy hairdo and short-shorts wardrobe to his bedroom antics that look like Charlie Chaplin wandered onto a gay Web porn site.
With voice-over narration in a faux Austrian accent (the pronoun I is pronounced Ichk), Bruno is a character you laugh at, not with.
He could be the offspring of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paris Hilton, tenaciously chasing celebrity, mistaking boundless narcissism for positive thinking. For all the fairly explicit, twisted and mostly icky obsession with sex, Bruno is terminally naive. You've gotta love the guy or not, depending on just how easily you get grossed out.
The other edge of the satirical sword is aimed at the America he encounters, especially its weird forms of life. Beginning in Hollywood, he tries a TV pilot. An interview with Ron Paul leads to an attempt to hit on the former presidential candidate, leaving a shaken Paul calling Bruno "queer" down a hotel corridor.
The TV test audience is not impressed, especially with a segment that brings new meaning to the term "swinging."
Leaving no stone unturned in his fame quest, Bruno adopts an African baby and even tries going straight, if it serves his purposes. This leads to sessions with fundamentalist sex-orientation counselors, a hunting trip with a bunch of good-'ol Southern boys, enlisting in the army and going to boot camp and even showing up at a white-trash swinger party.
"Bruno" intends to be an equal-opportunity offender of all political, sexual and cultural sensibilities, but its satirical bull's-eye is our obsession with celebrity. The film's release on the heels of Michael Jackson's death adds unintentional irony.
Being brilliant and a slapstick natural, Baron Cohen also happens to be utterly fearless. He gleefully dives head first into realms unknown to the timid or the sane. If only he knew when to stop.
With "Bruno," he and director Charles have a great character in search of a plot. While there are several moments of hilarity, there are long dry spells between them when the filmmakers just leave the cameras running, settling for the audience's shrieks and titters of discomfort in place of actual laughter.
Not that Bruno has a monopoly on laughing at embarrassment - or at encountering weirdness.
"Away We Go," a dysfunctional comedy directed by "American Beauty's" Sam Mendes, puts newly pregnant couple John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph on an odyssey to find a new home - and some suitable role models among family and friends-now that they've finally decided to grow up.
It's slim pickin's in the role-model department, with great actors like Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara and Maggie Gyllenhaal each upping the ante for self-absorption. Stealing the show is hilariously foul-mouthed Alison Janney, who sounds like she would have been more at home in Bruno's movie.
The homophobia of the American male that Bruno encounters also finds its way into "I Love You, Beth Cooper," this week's awkward adolescent comedy in which one character spends the entire movie insisting he's not gay - not that there's anything wrong with that, or anything
That's just one of the attempts at humor in this formulaic piece about a nerdy high school valedictorian (Paul Rust) who uses his graduation speech to proclaim his love for the head cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) of his fantasies.
Despite being directed by veteran Chris Columbus, the production feels clumsy enough to have actually been made by its awkward cast of characters. That's probably why its nerd-dreamgirl romance plays out so much sweeter than it would in real life.
Turns out, nerds are better than Bruno when it comes to happy endings.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com