Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart strip off their art-house inhibitions to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they laugh, sometimes hesitantly, at Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’s gayface doc-com Brüno.
So, Ben, we usually use this column to tease out the psychological and ideological underpinnings of mainstream American cinema, revealing for example that Ice Age 3 is about keeping poor kids out of rich neighborhoods, or that Transformers 2 is a dunderheaded op-ed about staying the course in Iraq. So Brüno—which was hilarious, right?—poses a problem for us: its politics are so blatant, is there anything interesting for us to talk about? My notes are basically just a series of scene descriptions: “karate teacher comparing gays to terrorists—hard to spot,” “playing gay at the army, where he calls his commander ‘Mein Fuhrer,’ saluting with a heil.” All very funny, of course, but I feel a bit pretentious pretending it takes me to point out what it Means.
But I’m sure we’ve still got plenty to discuss! For starters, Brüno did pleasantly surprise me: because it’s from Sacha Baron “Borat” Cohen, who a few years ago taught us all about American racism (thanks!), I assumed this film would teach us a lesson about how homophobic we are. And there’s plenty of that in there (sometimes unfairly; I might be a bit put off, too, if a nude Brüno kept trying to sneak into my tent in the middle of the night, as he does to a few unsuspecting Arkansas hunters). But there’s another, far more interesting subtext running through the film: the American obsession with those ever-elusive 15 minutes. “Brüno burlesques homophobia the way Borat did anti-semitism,” Papa Hoberman writes in his review, but it “is more of a comment on celebrity culture than the love (or hate) that dare not speak its name.” After all, Bruno, a disgraced Austrian fashion reporter, travels from Vienna to L.A. not for the sunshine and organic vegetables but for the chance at stardom. Bruno, really, works as a parodic primer on How to Become a Celebrity, mocking A- through D-listers, as well as those who aren’t even on a list: bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by writing songs; contribute to Save Darfur causes when you can’t even pronounce Darfur; dish on a talk show (using celebrity ultrasounds, Brüno plays a game called “Keep It or Abort It”); film a pilot; make a sex tape—with Rep. Ron Paul!; appear on a talk show with your black “gayby”.
The apex of this is, of course, is that horrifying scene in which Brüno interviews parents about using their baby for a photo shoot, a beyond belief sequence in which he continues to receive parental assent after raising the ante with every question: “is your baby comfortable with lit phosphorous?” “Could your [30 lb. baby] lose 10 lbs. by Friday?” Cohen kind of nails us here, more so than he does with the homophobia anyway; he also justifies his own gimmicky stunts. You’ll do anything to get on T.V., America. And so will I.
Before setting aside Brüno’s most obvious target, homophobia, we should mention that for all its hilarity (and I couldn’t agree more; this film makes the only other funny comedy we’ve discussed in these web pages, The Hangover, seem mind-numbingly painful) Cohen’s attack mobilizes some very problematic gay stereotypes, several of which you outlined in your piece about how gay is the new retard. He even hints that his particular, caricatured version of gay identity — fashionable to the point of tastelessness, vain, unhealthily thin, narcissistic, gossipy, hyper-sexual in the most un-erotic way — is by no means the norm. On his way to America he declares in voice-over his plans to become “the most famous gay Austrian since Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Yet the absence of any actual gay characters (aside from, spoiler alert, Elton John in the closing charity song) means Cohen gets away with his offensive performance. Oh how I wanted there to be a scene with a middle-class gay couple (or a gay bodybuilder, former Mr. Universe or not) pointing out what a clichéd, hyperbolic gayness Cohen is putting on. Just as laughing at The Hangover means ignoring its various political aberrations, enjoying Brüno means taking an uncomfortable amount of pleasure from Cohen’s gayface performance (as our colleague Mark Asch points out in his scathing review). And I don’t really buy the argument made by several critics (including one of my favorites, Slant’s Nick Schager) that the sheer excess of the Brüno character nullifies his offenses.
Really, though, it’s hard to get stuck on Cohen’s indulgences when every other person he encounters seems a thousand times more clueless/contemptible/cruel. In the clueless rubric, we should mention a scene that was unfortunately cut since our press screening, in which Brüno interviews LaToya Jackson, repeatedly asks if she could put him in touch with Michael, and then borrows her iPhone to read MJ’s number aloud in German to his assistant. My favorite part about that segment, during which Brüno interviewed B- through Z-list celebrities for a talk show pilot, was that he hired the Mexican-American movers as substitutes for the furniture that never arrived. The ensuing image — of parasitic pseudo-celebrities talking about nothing as they teeter awkwardly on the backs of working-class men on their hands and knees — is a bizarrely literal symbol of American class relations.
Just as you enjoyed Brüno’s parody of our obsession with fame, I was surprised by its insightful (and related) take on our cultural qualms about class. Brüno’s quest to become a celebrity reflects our collective fantasy of never being strapped for cash: in one scene he gripes to a disgusted focus group that he’s spent all his money filming the two-second Harrison Ford “interview” they just watched, but later when he discusses possible charities that will guarantee swift fame with two impossibly stupid consultants, there’s no question as to how that project will be funded (with Universal’s money, perhaps?). His journey westward seemed a clever parody of absurdly rich celeb couple David and Victoria Beckham’s over-publicized move to Los Angeles — which spawned a disastrous reality TV show idea of its own. Brüno’s many jokes about the difficulties of class tension in a nation that strives so doggedly after the markers of middle-class comfort — the parents prostituting their babies, the army sergeants who don’t know that “D&G” stands for Dolce & Gabana, the southern hunters who deny their likeness to the women from Sex and the City, the focus group members who take their day-long job of judging new reality TV shows so incredibly seriously — made for an interesting compliment to its uneasy probing of America’s homophobic tendencies and obsession with the limelight. What else does Brüno have going for it aside from its overt engagement with socialized homophobia?
It’s always about class with you, isn’t it Ben? As you mention, LaToya sitting on the hired help was a surreally spot-on symbol of American class relations—particularly in Los Angeles, where you’re either famous or Mexican—but even better was the heavy-set fellow they used as a tray, his naked body covered in sushi rolls. Then you have the celebrity class not only (literally) breaking the workingman’s back, but picking his bones and devouring his flesh, as well.
But my favorite of Cohen’s surreal symbols comes later in the film, when Brüno has adopted the persona of “Straight Dave,” a wrestling-match emcee whose catchphrase, “My Asshole’s Just for Shitting,” adorns the t-shirts of his rabidly heterosexual fans. I guess these are spoilers, but whatever: his erstwhile assistant makes a return by publically calling Straight Dave a faggot in front of all his fans; inviting him into the cage for a presumable death match, Brüno-cum-Dave instead begins to make out with his old friend, and they slowly begin stripping, preparing for the act of love while a crowd of hillbillies hurls chairs, drinks and epithets at them. Gays making love while locked in a cage under siege—could you think of a more apt representation of homosexuality in America?
Also in that scene: Straight Dave tears off the clothes of a couple of women, leaving them smiling in bikinis—something The Hangover would think was a joke in and of itself. But Cohen is up to something else (because, unlike Todd Philips, he’s not an idiot), arguing that heterosexuality often leads to subjugation; it runs through the film: a quick trip to the Middle East, where no one is gay, drives home that point with all its veiled women. But the most disturbing example is Brüno’s “Second Stage” coach for heterosexuality conversion, who delivers a wild monologue about how women make him crazy that superficially resembles some bad comedian’s stand up (Howie Mandel?), but crosses a line into discomfiting misogyny.
Cohen’s gimmick is to act so over the top that he elicits his interlocutors to behave even more offensively—to go with his flow and eventually outdo his own cheaply offensive antics. In law you might call it entrapment, but in movies we call it funny?
Your mentioning Brüno’s attempted conversion by an ex-gay misogynist and his subsequent transformation into the heroically hetero Straight Dave brings up another political blind spot in this delirious satire. Women — except for the dominatrix who flagellates Brüno during a swinger party, a scene that I suspect was at least partially planned — figure mainly as victims of or willing participants in the sexual economy that has oppressed them for centuries. (See, it’s not always about class with me, it’s also about gender.) My favorite film theorist, Robin Wood, wrote a great deal about the fundamental commonalities between the gay rights and feminist movements that too often go untapped. Likewise, Brüno would be infinitely richer if Cohen had picked up on this thread. Instead, we get the comically, predictably outraged audience of black women on the talk show where Brüno appears with the baby to whom he’s given the “traditional African name” O.J.; the air-headed model at Milan Fashion Week (the unhealthy lifestyles engendered by the modeling industry, meanwhile, are only alluded to in passing); has-been female celebrities (again, the skewered sexual politics of Hollywood only figure in as much as they’re biased against gays); and the aforementioned charity consultants — who, admittedly, are beyond even the most liberal feminist recuperation.
But hey, it’s hard to be so critical when we’re talking about a film that wields its politics like a big red dildo — although Times critic A.O. Scott voiced fairly extreme disappointment with Brüno. After all, this is by far the best and funniest film we’ve discussed this summer, so whatever its shortcomings may be its pleasures and insights are much greater. Brüno’s (hopefully) inevitable success makes me wonder what, if anything, Cohen’s next character-driven documentary comedy (“doc-com”?) will manage to make light of — what disguise can he don, what mannerisms can he adopt, what socialized -ism can he point his penis and microphone at next? For my part, I’d like to see Brüno go under the knife, Mr. Garrison-style, and re-emerge as a perky brunette who takes the beauty industry to task for fueling the insecurities that drive its business. Or maybe a reunion with his confiscated son O.J. will provide a window onto our messed up education system. Whatever Cohen wants to do — even if it involves whips, chains and body suits made entirely of Velcro — I’m totally into it.