Brüno (2009)

Sacha Baron Cohen might be a guerilla satirist, or a provocateur, or a slapstick genius, or all of the above. His comedy is certainly out there on the ledge, although not so much in the targets he chooses to lampoon as in his complete, unwavering commitment to his outlandish characters. Baron Cohen is a practitioner of a kind of extreme candid camera, with a critical difference: he never lets his victims in on the joke. After his last movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, it is hard to believe there are still people out there who can be so readily duped by Baron Cohen, but apparently he found enough of them for Brüno, his latest mock (and mocking) documentary.

Those victims include Congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, who was unwittingly cast in a Brüno sex tape. It's easy enough to feel sorry for the seemingly mild-mannered Paul until he starts screaming "queer!" at Brüno. Not that Brüno hasn't been called worse. Brüno (Baron Cohen) is a flamboyantly gay, über-haughty, scandal-prone Austrian fashionista TV host. To call Brüno flamboyant is something of an understatement, but our language lacks a more apt phrase, perhaps because our species lacks actual specimens as flamboyant as Brüno. Exuberant? Colorful? Flashy? Bizarre? Peacocks might have a word for it. The minimalist plot of the movie has Brüno banished from the fashion world after an incident involving a velcro suit, and so he makes his way to Hollywood to find fame and fortune. Mostly fame. A lovestruck assistant named Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten) follows him. This plot is nearly identical to the plot of Borat, and the movie does not stray from the Borat path very much, except that where Borat was a sexist, racist, dopey, horny, hairy Kazakh, Brüno is a hypersexual, dopey, smooth-skinned Austrian. Indeed, the main difference is that Brüno is better groomed.

No doubt because Hollywood provides few targets for him, Brüno, who always refers to himself in the third person, takes his umlaut and makes haste to the same places where Borat found his victims: the American South. There he gets a rise out of a daytime TV talk show audience, a trio of macho hunters, a couple of ministers who attempt to "cure" his homosexuality, and, most dangerously, a rabidly anti-gay wrestling audience. These are pretty easy targets -- they practically bring their own pitchforks. Brüno also attempts to broker a peace agreement in the Middle East in set-ups that reveal less about his targets (who are unfailingly polite), and more about his own colossal vacuousness.

What's the point of all this? There's a legitimate question as to whether Baron Cohen, by presenting a character that is so stereotypically gay, is not reinforcing homophobic stereotypes. In some sense, Baron Cohen gets to have it both ways (or at least, he insists on having it both ways). He does indeed perpetuate gay stereotypes among those who, quite clearly, already believe the stereotypes. Is that actually reinforcing those stereotypes? Anyone else is given permission to laugh at the ignorant buffoons, because Brüno is such an extreme character that (we tell ourselves) only an idiot wouldn't see through the ruse. Brüno is also every bit as ignorant, bigoted, and dim as the people he spoofs, and he is on the receiving end of a fair amount of (apparently genuine) verbal and physical abuse, which we can enjoy with a clear conscience. What makes any of it work is less that Baron Cohen has created a believable character, and more that he never, ever breaks character, no matter how absurd, grotesque, and dangerous the situation (adding to the physical danger is that Brüno is naked quite a lot -- this movie earns its R rating the hard way).

The movie is quite funny. The humor is frequently puerile -- a lot of dildos are involved, as well as assorted household implements put to novel and, er, unhygienic use. The satire is sometimes pointed -- celebrities who accessorize with adopted babies, and verging-on-abusive stage parents are mocked, as are attention-seeking fame whores (such as Brüno himself). The general point is to expose (or is it exploit?) prejudice and then wring laughs out of it. There's a certain mean-spiritedness to Baron Cohen's dope-slapping con job that is attenuated by the willingness of his unwitting marks to go the extra mile to behave badly and glory in their own bigotry, hypocrisy, and intolerance. Baron Cohen is also an equal opportunity offender -- the laughs are meant to be uncomfortable, even for those in the know. He assumes a certain closeted, faux-liberal, homophobic squeamishness in his audience. In its goofy, in-your-face, politically incorrect way, Brüno makes a case for tolerance just by making a mockery of intolerance. This is the rhetorical equivalent of throwing Molotov cocktails for peace -- there might be more effective and intellectually consistent tactics, but none with the same potential for slapstick hilarity.