Half the point of Brüno is to stir up controversy, and it's been successful, with many questioning the film's depiction of homosexuals. But according to critics it's funny, so who cares if it's "the swishy gay equivalent of blackface?"
Brüno, which opens tomorrow, is similar to Sacha Baron Cohen's first film Borat, but according to the reviews it's more mean-spirited and has even less of a plot. The fake working title: Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt pretty much says it all. Adapted from a character on The Ali G. Show, Brüno is a fixture in the European fashion world until he commits a major runway faux pas and is fired from his Austrian talk show. Along with his assistant Lutz (Gustaf Hammaresten), he sets out for America with the hope of becoming "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler." This leads to a series of sketches in which he foists his absurdly flamboyant gayness on unsuspecting Americans, from Ron Paul, to a "gay deprogrammer," to a group of aggressively heterosexual deer hunters he compares to the ladies on Sex and the City.
A scene filmed with La Toya Jackson in which Brüno gets her to eat off the body of a Mexican laborer and tries to get Michael Jackson's phone number was cut by the studio on the day Michael died, but other than MJ nothing is too sacred for a good penis joke. Many critics were shocked that the film was only rated R, since Brüno is shown pantomiming oral sex in great detail and using a fire extinguisher and a Champagne bottle while having sex with another man. Almost every critic was unperturbed by the film's ridiculous depiction of gay men, which they reasoned was OK since the film is actually mocking homophobic people (though it's still getting a laugh out of gay stereotypes). Their biggest complaints were that it seemed some of the "real" Americans were actually actors, and the film wasn't quite as funny as Borat. Below, we check out the reviews for Brüno.
Baron Cohen takes justifiable relish in ambushing the gullible and the guilty - clueless stars eager to latch on to a fashionable charity (since George Clooney has Darfur, Brüno wants Darfive), mothers who'd starve their kids for a modeling gig, kinky swingers into all kinds of sex except same-sex, bogus efforts to bring peace to the Middle East (Brüno confuses Hamas with hummus), and the adoption of babies as accessories (Brüno swaps his iPod for little black OJ and loses custody until he throws in a MacBook Pro). And you haven't lived till you see Bono, Elton, Sting, Snoop Dogg and Chris Martin sing Brüno's "We Are the World" anthem. The lyrics urging North and South Korea to stop fighting since they both look Chinese haunt me still.
The humor is more mean-spirited [than in Borat] and sometimes forced, a few bits don't work at all, and there's an inescapable feeling that director Larry Charles, returning from Borat, has staged some scenes with scripted actors serving as Bruno's victims... Bruno mincingly walks a fine line in exposing homophobic behavior and perpetuating wince-inducing gay stereotypes. Not to get all PC on you, but the straight, outrageously dressed Baron Cohen camps it up in what has legitimately been criticized as swishy gay equivalent of blackface.
Some moments of discomfort within Brüno result from a sense that the filmmakers are not playing fair. The spontaneity of Boratis largely absent and, although some sequences are undoubtedly unrehearsed, there are indications that some were staged. The difficulty in telling one from the other speaks to the craft used to assemble the production, but it also robs Brünoof a key element - the belief that Baron Cohen is using "real" Americans to illustrate his points. The "reality" embraced by Brüno is no less artificial than the one embraced by many so-called "reality" television shows. When it comes to making viewers laugh, however, Brüno hits a home run - provided the viewer is not easily offended.
To say that Brüno pushes the proverbial envelope is to understate the situation. The only things separating this movie from a hard NC-17 are some well-placed black rectangles that hide potentially graphic content. Even with that consideration in place, it's hard to imagine why the normally prudish MPAA did not slap this film with its harshest rating. An extreme pantomime of oral sex would normally be enough to prohibit anyone under 18 from seeing this with or without an accompanying parent or guardian. And that's far from the most outrageous scene in the film. When it came to matters sexual, Borat was hardly restrained or in good taste, but Brünomakes it look like a morality play with puritanical values. Some of this content is hard-core (in more ways than one). It is also at times laugh-aloud hysterical - funnier and raunchier than anything presented in the summer's surprise hit, The Hangover.
Could that be Baron Cohen's cunning plan? Might he actually be in the business of revealing our cauterized senses, and the wound where our finer judgments are meant to be? A nice idea, but I'm afraid that Brüno feels hopelessly complicit in the prejudices that it presumes to deride. You can't honestly defend your principled lampooning of homophobia when nine out of every ten images that you project onscreen comply with the most threadbare cartoons of gay behavior. A schoolboy who watches a pirated DVD of this film will look at the prancing Austrian and find more, not fewer, reasons to beat up the kid on the playground who doesn't like girls. There is, on the evidence of this movie, no such thing as gay love; there is only gay sex, a superheated substitute for love, with its own code of vulcanized calisthenics whose aim is not so much to sate the participants as to embarrass onlookers from the straight-and therefore straitlaced-society beyond.
The humor — and it keeps on coming — carries with it an almost immediate sour aftertaste, as Bruno's intentions, and necessarily Cohen's along with them, appear far from honorable. As in Borat, Bruno's pranks are designed to expose people's presumed latent prejudices. But while the previous film got away with this high-wire act for most people, Bruno is more erratic, partly since one is more aware of the game being rigged but also because Bruno himself comes off as someone the world scarcely needs another example of — a self-absorbed narcissist for whom fame is the only goal. Cohen is critiquing this attitude, of course, but the film comes to share too much of this anything-for-effect mindset.
Underlying all these gags-the funny, the crude, the funny and crude-is a hard truth: Flagrant gay behavior drives a lot of heteros insane. To be honest, I'm uncomfortable watching two guys with tongues down each other's throats, too, but at least I know the problem is mine, not theirs. When the hushed, arty Brokeback Mountaincame out, its couplings set against purple mountains majesty, many right-wing commentators announced that they couldn't bear to watch such abominations. To them-and to those who'll see Brünobecause it's the latest gross-out comedy sensation-Baron Cohen is proclaiming, "Suck on this!"
Bruno's adopted African baby paraded before a black audience is not funny. It's embarrassing, as is any joke that bombs, yet the comic keeps going back to it nevertheless. This is one of several instances where an audience might experience both exasperation and tedium with the comic's relentless act of running a joke into the ground... We sense, as we never did with Borat, the comic behind the character. Especially when his accent keeps changing — from an unconvincing Austrian to his own British and even to a whisper of Borat himself.
The more uncomfortable Brüno makes people, the more he draws attention to their petty churlishness and homophobia. When he ambushes the maverick politician Ron Paul with a go-go dance, you can forgive a visibly shaken Paul for thinking Brüno is nuts - though that's hardly an excuse for calling him ''queer.'' Yet is Brüno the scurrilous man-tramp himself a homophobic caricature? My honest answer is: yes and no. Baron Cohen's portrayal certainly feeds into a stereotype of haughty flamboyance. But if one condemns the movie on that basis, then shouldn't we toss Christopher Guest's sublime turn in Waiting for Guffman, Robin Williams' inspired camping in The Birdcage, and so many others onto the bonfire, too? The bottom line is that Baron Cohen, even at his most scathing, makes Brüno gleefully unapologetic about who he is.
The film demonstrates, at a fairly high level of conceptual sophistication, that lampooning homophobia has become an acceptable, almost unavoidable form of homophobic humor, or at least a way of licensing gags that would otherwise be out of bounds. An early sequence that graphically shows Brüno and his lover exerting themselves in various positions and with the assistance of, among other things, a Champagne bottle, a fire extinguisher and a specially modified exercise machine, derives its humor less from the extremity of their practices than from the assumption that sex between men is inherently weird, gross and comical. The same sequence with a man and a woman - or for that matter, two women - would play, most likely on the Internet rather than in the multiplex, as inventive, moderately kinky pornography rather than as icky, gasp-inducing farce.