Have you ever been at a polite dinner party and heard, in an exquisitely timed moment of silence, a loud, rasping fart erupt from one of the guests? The ensuing moment is ripe–with feeling. Oh my god, did everyone just hear that? How embarrassing!–for the offender, certainly, and, weirdly, for everyone else as well. Faces flush, molting through a welter of expressions: shock, disgust, feigned ignorance, a suppressed smirk. Finally, hopefully, someone breaks the discomfort with a cackle, and the anxiety is swept away with a hearty shared laugh.
Watching Brüno, the British comic Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest mockumentary, is a lot like experiencing that après-fart moment, except it lasts for an excruciating ninety minutes in which the viewer is kept constantly teetering between incredulity, mortification and laughter. It is unpleasant, almost physically painful to watch and also, at times, irresistibly funny. Brüno is a gas!
It is also a whole lot of ass, nipple and cock, especially cocks, which in Brüno come in a variety of forms: flesh and prosthetic, soft and hard, mechanical and human. That’s because Brüno is, among other things, Cohen’s send-up of gay male culture. Like his other alter-egos, Ali G and Borat, Brüno is an exaggeration of an already exaggerated stereotype, in this case, of a gay Austrian fame whore who, having lost his job as a fashion correspondent for the TV program "Funkyzeit," embarks on an odyssey to become "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler."
Cohen plays Brüno with absolute conviction, as someone utterly genuine about his superficiality, which is to say that Brüno is completely unconvincing as an actual human being, except, of course, to the parade of celebrities, politicians, preachers, agents and just folks Cohen punks along the way. Hence one level of transferred embarrassment cum laughter; you just can’t believe so many people were so wholly duped by so obvious a fabrication–and on camera too!
And so Brüno minces, gyrates, strips, sashays and shantè, shantè, shantès through Hollywood, Israel-Palestine, Africa, Wichita, an Alabama military base, ex-gay therapy, a swingers’ sex party and a Sherman Oaks salon named Pink Cheeks that specializes in a beautifying treatment known as "anal bleaching." Needless to say, this is not a movie for those with delicate sensibilities.
It is also not for the turgidly politically correct. Since Cohen announced his intent to follow 2006’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan with a queer flick, the guardians of gay identity have been wringing their hands over whether the film will satirize and expose homophobia or merely Make Fun Glorious Nation of Gaymenistan. At least they had advance warning. After Borat hit theaters, the startled Kazakh government responded with full-page newspaper ads and television commercials countering Cohen’s portrayal of their homeland as a rural, anti-Semitic backwater whose toothless citizens drink fermented horse urine and have sex with their sisters. Of course, this humorless rejoinder only proved that if ever a country deserved mockery, it’s Kazakhstan.
Alas, in 2009, it appears that gays are the new Kazakhs. After viewing a rough cut, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation asked Cohen to film an postscript stressing the importance of gay rights and tolerance, and the Human Rights Campaign implored Universal Pictures to "remind the viewing public right there in the theater that this is intended to expose homophobia." Thankfully, no such tedium was added to the film (although a scene featuring Latoya Jackson was cut from the US version in light of her brother’s death).
Undeniably Cohen scores some easy, bawdy laughs at the expense of gay male sex, which Brüno has frequently, acrobatically and with the help of many accessories and aides. One of those is a black baby boy christened OJ, whom Brüno adopts in Africa. Just before OJ is carted away by child protective services, Brüno, an incurable "cockaholic," readily concedes that part of OJ’s appeal is that he’s a real "dick magnet." All of this (and more!) is revealed on an episode of the Richard Bey Show attended mostly by discerning black women, who arrive ready to cheer on a single gay man and his adopted son only to turn against Bruno, who thinks Africa is a country and claims to have purchased OJ with an IPod.
Among the objects of ridicule in this scene are African vogue, black nationalism, white ignorance, benevolence, Angelina Jolie and Madonna, family values, consumerism, the talk show genre and the compulsion to take self-incriminating digital photos. Given the sheer anarchy Cohen unleashes upon the world, it seems small-minded to complain that this scene trivializes "gay families" or that Brüno engages in "gayface minstrelsy." Cohen is wielding a nuclear bomb, not a sniper rifle. And besides, his gay minstrel act, while it lubricates and connects the film’s set pieces, is frankly the least offensive, and thus least interesting, aspect of the movie.
If Brüno is not especially homophobic, does it succeed in satirizing homophobia? Not particularly. Here Brüno falters because Cohen abandons the comic formula that worked to such devastating effect in Borat. As the cultural critic Lauren Berlant pointed out to me, Sacha Baron Cohen borrows heavily from the legendary performance artist, Bugs Bunny, the tricky rabbit who used gender-bending drag not only to escape Elmer Fudd’s murderous designs, but to entrap the poor man in the pursuit of his own most ardent desires–to shoot a critter or kiss a pretty lady. Nowhere is this debt more evident than in Borat, in which Cohen, cartoonishly costumed as a rabidly anti-Semitic, nonchalantly misogynist worshipper "of the Hawk," sadistically and methodically elicits the ugly sympathies of our modern day Fudds, who clap merrily along as Borat sings the Kazakh folk song "Throw the Jew Down the Well" or enthusiastically agree on how awesome it would be to keep women as slaves. As in so many Bugs Bunny sketches, once armed, the Fudds shoot themselves.
In Brüno, Cohen replicates this method in too few scenes, the most delicious of which is a series of interviews with stage parents who share Brüno’s yearning for fame and thus, with minimal goading, consent to have their three-year-old daughters operate heavy machinery, handle hazardous materials and lose 10 pounds by liposuction if it will help her land the gig. As a slice-and-dice of America’s quest for fifteen minutes of fame, Brüno scores.
For the most part, however, Cohen chooses in Brüno to present an antagonistic rather than sympathetic face. The premise, I suppose, is to confront the straight world with a figure so flamboyant and so oversexed that the breeders can’t help but freak out. The problem is that Cohen’s victims just won’t play along. Whether it is Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, whom Brüno decides to cast as the lead in a sex tape, or Ayman Abu Aita, the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Brüno insults by calling his "King Osama" a "dirty wizard" and a "homeless Santa Claus"–Cohen just can’t get a rise out of his male co-stars, who usually respond by ending the interview.
When Brüno goes on a hunting trip with a trio of Alabama rednecks and attempts to crawl naked into their tents because "a bear ate all my clothes and all I have is this box of condoms," the reply is altogether appropriate and disappointingly mild–"get the fuck out of my tent!" The only scene that approaches real violence is the film’s climax, in which a stadium of wrestling fans hurl invectives, spit, beer and metal chairs at Brüno and his lover–but only because Cohen has previously stoked their rage, not as gay Brüno, but as "Straight Dave." The resulting chaos is animated, one suspects, not so much by homophobia, but by a sense of betrayal.
What does this all prove? Perhaps the ultimate discovery of Brüno is that the world is a tolerant, commodious, even benevolent place for strange fruits. Or perhaps the camera actually functions as a civilizing instrument, one that puts straight white men on their best behavior, unlike the infantilizing effect it apparently has on the cougars of Real Housewives. Or perhaps Cohen really intended to make a film about the banality of tolerance, satirizing not homophobia or homosexuals, but the squirm-inducing ways in which people strive to accept others against their baser instincts and, in some cases, their better judgment.
Alas, that film remains unrealized. According to industry reporters, the original ending of Brüno depicted the protagonist and his lover–now brain damaged and wheelchair bound as a result of the wrestling match riot–at a press conference where Brüno predictably milks the media’s sympathy. That conclusion was spiked, it seems, in response to protests from gay Hollywood powerbrokers–Cohen’s rare concession to the rules that be. Perhaps this aborted ending would have been seriously unfunny, but one can imagine in it a more devastating epilogue than the benign celebrity sing-along that now concludes the film–one that indicts our culture’s penchant for turning victims into superstars. Perhaps, too, that ending would have lifted Brüno to a place even Borat dared not go–a critique of the mainstream.