It’s never a good idea to underestimate Sacha Baron Cohen. More than just provoking laughs, Baron Cohen’s aim is to
push prevailing social attitudes forward through aggressive comic
confrontation, targeting the unwitting (or witting, as the case may be)
participants in his sketches, the audience in theaters and himself all at once.
So while his new film Brüno, upon
first viewing, is likely to feel disappointing and shallow to fans of his work,
it’s definitely worth mulling its attempt
to use humor to bludgeon our sexual mores to death.
The widely varied reviews of Brüno, both
professional and on message boards, include a mix of approbation and outrage
for the film’s treatment of sexuality. The critical mass of professionals and
plebes alike fails to answer the "big" question definitively: is it a brilliant Swiftian satire, a crude "gayface" slapstick-fest, or something in
between? Is Brüno a
punch in the face to American homophobia or does it perpetuate homophobic stereotypes in the name of
The answer is both, and neither. Baron Cohen purposefully puts the onus
on the audience, challenging us to examine our role in the joke. Are we
actually laughing at Brüno’s out-there gayness or are we laughing at others’
crude reactions to said gayness, or (most likely) both? Certainly Brüno’s
outlandish libido, which encompasses every freakish permutation of kinky sex
imaginable, is meant to poke fun at ridiculous fears of gay sex, but it also
manages to tap into those fears as well. So as we cringe or groan upon
witnessing Brüno’s predelictions and then laugh at those who are affronted by
him (to wit: a group of randy hetero swingers who love kinky male-female sex
but are weirded out by Brüno) we are mocking ourselves. It’s seriously meta, an
attempt at a kind of mass exorcism of our own homophobic demons. And although by the movie’s end demons may still linger, the
film is a fascinating mess.
In the movie’s weaker first half, when Austrian TV host Brüno’s outsize ego (and
an unfortunate incident with velcro on a local fashion runway) send him to
Hollywood to seek stardom, the joke is on him and his vapid pursuit of fame at
all costs. His narcissistic inability to see his own lack of talent and his
ruthlessness towards his lovelorn assistant turn him repulsive.
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During a sequence in which he adopts an African child whom he treats as an
accessory, Baron Cohen walks very close to the line: in a particularly tricky
scene, Brüno presents his adopted child to an African-American TV audience, and
their appalled reaction to his sexuality in and of itself is then undercut by
their rightfully appalled reaction to his poor parenting skills. This
scene takes a stereotype about homophobic African-Americans and a stereotype
about gay parents being corrupting influences and basically pits them against
each other. It’s clever and bold, but during moments like these one wonders just how far
over its audience’s head some of Brüno‘s
message will fly. Viewers may leave that scene with the same smug stereotypes
they had going in, and it’s this first half of the movie that’s likely to bring
out the audience’s own homophobia as it pushes the boundaries of "good
taste" to their limit.
Then the movie switches gears, halfway through, and Brüno launches himself into
the heart of masculine America to turn "straight," thinking it’s the
ticket to fame. Suddenly, it’s easier to side with him. Even an obnoxious,
insensitive egotist like Brüno has a right to be himself, we begin to think, as
he rhapsodizes about the stars in the sky and Sex in the City on a macho hunting trip, or puts a striped scarf
over his army fatigues to "break up" the pattern. Watching him try
and fail to conform to gender stereotypes, and watching the hate-filled stares
his effete mannerisms elicit, is both painful and painfully funny. A scene in which Brüno
mournfully shoves pie in his mouth at a local diner and the patrons’ grimaces in response recalls an
iconic scene from Easy Rider in which
the locals at a diner mediate violence against the long-haired hippies in their
midst. When Brüno finally realizes his love for his assistant and tries to
marry him, only to be denied by a bigoted priest, it’s powerful. Suddenly we identify
strongly with this blowhard we just hooted at–he becomes a symbol for
something at the heart of our national struggle to widen the net of liberty and
The weird juxtaposition of Baron Cohen’s two targets, celebrity and
intolerance, was intended. We were meant to be disgusted by Brüno’s shameless
pursuit of the former and then sympathetic to his experience of the latter. The
questions that juxtaposition poses are: Even if a person from a stigmatized
group conforms to the worst, most callous, stereotypes, shouldn’t they still have the freedom to be themselves?
Are we only interested in openness to minorities who conform to a dominant
ideal? How far will our so-called liberal values go when our deeply-ingrained
prejudice is awakened? It’s a fair point. In our age of "tolerance," where even
politicians who pass anti-gay legislation claim to have no problem at all with
their LGBT neighbors, Baron Cohen is exposing the primal disgust lurking
beneath the thin veil of acceptance, the fear that a gay (read: gay sex) agenda
will follow the protection of gay civil rights and
marriage equality. Certainly that was the intended point
of Brüno’s awkward attempted seduction of Ron Paul.
The reason some of these intentions may not sink in, though, is that Brüno is a
mixed bag artistically, neither as sharp nor as prescient as Borat. Coming at the end of the Bush
era, Borat tapped into America’s
newfound self-loathing, our need to vent against "the ugly American."
It also eerily prefigured the frightening racism, sexism and homophobia that
would be caught on countless cable news clips and YouTube videos during the
2008 election. Brüno was launched
into production riding on Borat‘s
fame and critical embrace, long before the first flutterings of a full-blown
national resurgence of a movement for gay rights, a movement spurred on by the
hateful Proposition 8. Thanks to that national dialogue Brüno’s humor now feels a little
dated: the soul-searching Baron Cohen advocates has already been going on quite
in the hearts of many Americans, including governors signing same-sex marriage
laws. On the other hand, those activists bruised from recent culture war battles may be less
inclined to go along with the joke: they already know plenty about homophobia,
thanks very much.
Beyond the zeitgeist, though,
less deep: there’s the fact that the pioneering shock value of Borat is old hat. Brüno almost feels like Borat lite, broader, more disparate and
wackier, possibly staged in parts. Then there’s the issues with the character
himself, always third fiddle to Baron’s masterpieces Ali G and Borat. Those
first two characters are both idiots who espouse prejudice galore. They both
test people’s willingness to accept ignorance and bigotry when they arise from
"the youth" or a "foreigner" who may not know better. But
Brüno, who originally targeted the fashion world and not much more, was never
as subtle or interesting a concoction. He worked best as a wispy hanger-on, as when, wide-eyed, he told a fashion
designer that a collection was "hard-edged" and also
"soft," "dark" and also "light" and elicited
knowing nods in response to his absurd assertions. Was he meant to hold up a
feature-length film burrowing deep into the American psyche?
From Apatow "bromances" to movies like "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"
there’s a new trend of straight white dudes exploiting homophobic humor while
denouncing homophobia, and many say Brüno fits right in with the trend. But Brüno‘s intentions are certainly to be
much more than that, and it’s both riskier and more challenging to the status
quo than those tamer comedies. There’s no question that Sacha Baron Cohen has
gotten more Americans talking about the nature of and proper response to
homophobia than any other single recent artistic work (even Brokeback or Milk, both far better films which reached fewer people.) If there has to be an
artistic edge, Baron Cohen is a good person to be on it. I hope he goes back to
the drawing board for a good long time and comes up with a new way to shock us
out of our sensibilities. I can’t wait to see his take on feminism.