Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Bruno’ is an equal opportunity offender

[7 July 2009]

By John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

Among the narrowly focused special-interest groups poised to get lathered up over “Bruno” — comic-critic Sacha Baron Cohen’s new exercise in carefully calibrated bad taste — are Jews. Blacks. Hunters. Wrestling fans. The military. Austrians. Hamas. Ron Paul. People who watch daytime talk shows. People born south of New Jersey.

Oh yes, and gays.

In his follow-up to the wildly successful and outrageous “Borat,” Cohen has again made a movie whose notoriety precedes it. And which has the homosexual community feeling particularly anxious: “Bruno” title character, first seen on “Da Ali G Show,” is a flamboyantly homosexual fashionista and seeker-after-celebrity who wants to be “the biggest Austrian superstar since Adolf Hitler.” His sexual proclivities are extreme. His penis is on open display (OK, once), as is his capacity for shameless self-promotion.

Arguably, it’s Bruno’s insatiable desire to maneuver his Teutonic self into the public eye that’s really the heart of the film and its social criticism. And the release of the film, so close to Michael Jackson’s death, is one of those weird convergences of fact and fiction. Jackson never had to seek out fame, but judging by “Bruno,” his brand of eccentric celebrity still serves as tropes for the attention-hungry — including Jackson’s sister LaToya, who was removed from a scene “out of respect for the Jackson family,” according to a Universal representative.

But what’s more of a legitimate concern for gays — and not just gays, of course — isn’t Cohen caricature of Bruno’s sexuality, but how that portrayal will be received by the less-than-brilliant. Opinion is all over the map.

“Those of us at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation who saw ‘Bruno’ agreed that it’s not really helpful to try to critique this as a single film,” said GLAAD’s senior director of media programs, Rashad Robinson, in a prepared statement. “It’s really a 90-minute series of sketches — some of which hit their mark, but some of which hit our community instead, and in ways that feel fundamentally antithetical to the intentions of the filmmakers.”

“I thought it was uneven and thin, but very funny, and I loved the various set pieces involving outrageous sex,” said Village Voice columnist and oft-cited font of gayness Michael Musto. “It would have been more effective if Bruno had been somewhat soulful in addition to being dumb and superficial — i.e., if he wasn’t just using (his adopted) baby as an accessory — but then again, Borat did it with his sister, i.e., Cohen is an equal opportunity offender. It’s only weird that the filmmakers didn’t go along with GLAAD’s suggestion that they trim the hot-tub shot, yet they’re cutting the LaToya bit ‘out of respect for the family.’”

The aforementioned hot-tub shot is one of those instances in the film that purposely takes what are presumed to be straight perceptions of the gay sex life, and explodes them beyond recognition. Will straight audiences understand the overstatement?

“I think it’s a very, very gay movie,” said Corey Scholibo, arts-entertainment editor for the gay-centric Advocate magazine. “And I think gay people, when they see this film, are going to feel it’s a movie that was made for them.” But even while thinking “Bruno” was “hilarious” (“I spit my water out”), Scholibo said his personal jury is still out regarding the film and the larger straight population.

“I don’t know,” he said. “And I don’t know specifically what the ‘Borat’ audience was. I think young straight men who aren’t gay-positive will be going to ‘Bruno’ and laugh at it. Whether or not, in the process, Cohen in some genius way undermines any of their fears — which is a very real possibility — that would be great. Or will they be laughing at the silly queers? They could say, ‘This straight man went out and made fun of them,’ not that he did that, but that’s what they could think. It’s kind of a performance art piece in a way. I don’t know how it’s going to play out, especially at a very heated time about gay rights in the United States.”

Same-sex marriage. Benefits for federal workers. Don’t ask-don’t tell. Ongoing violence against gays. The issues are ripe, and defensiveness is understandable, even if most agree the enemy isn’t Cohen.

“I think there’s far more of a danger of homophobia being exacerbated by the religious right and elected officials who push inequality,” said David Kilmnick, CEO of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth. “I’m not offended by it. It’s in line with the type of films he makes, so it’s not anything out of the ordinary. He’s trying to get a reaction out of people about different things. If you laugh at ‘Family Guy,’ if you laugh at ‘South Park,’ all these shows, they really have the message of how ridiculous all this stuff is.”

In a way, the humor of “Bruno” is in a tradition of American humor that stretches back decades and decades, to the Lower East Side in the North, to the Chittlin’ Circuit of the South, and points in between. “I think it’s important in life when you’re dealing with the daily struggles of inequality that you take a second to sit back and laugh,” said Kilmnick. “That’s always been the medicine for those who’ve been oppressed.”



“Da Ali G Show” — The satirical talk show that begot both Borat and Bruno introduced the Cambridge-educated Cohen to the public as a hip-hop / NBA-inspired, Caribbean-inflected ignoramus who interviewed / sandbagged an array of prominent world figures — from former UN secretary-general “Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali” to “boss man of ABC News” Sam Donaldson. Ali G regularly misidentified his guests — Buzz Aldrin was “Buzz Lightyear”; Gore Vidal was “Vidal Sassoon” — and the dialogue was excruciating: During a panel with religious experts, Ali G asked a Catholic priest, “Ain’t it hypocriticalist that so many nuns also work part-time as strippers?” and claimed to have the video to prove it. Whether the religious episode was as funny as the one in which Borat got patrons of a country bar to sing along to an “old Kazakh folk tune” — that bashed Jews — is open to question.

“Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” — Besides defaming an entire Central Asian nation, “Borat” dropped a house on frat-boy culture, and the frat boys fought back: Then-University of South Carolina students and Chi Psi brothers Justin Seay and “Anthony” (as he’s identified in the film) filed legal action, claiming they were duped into appearing in the film. The young men “engaged in behavior that they otherwise would not have engaged in,” the lawsuit said. Among other things, the trio (whose third member, David Corcoran, was not party to the suit), waxed nostalgic for slavery and consumed enormous amounts of alcohol.

“Bruno” — Continuing his campaign of public humiliation, Cohen reverts to “Ali G” tactics with his new film’s torpedoing of Texas congressman Ron Paul. The former presidential candidate, clearly under the impression he’s being involved in a legitimate interview, is ushered into a private hotel bedroom where Bruno engages in an outrageously obvious come-on, eventually dropping his pants — as Paul tries his best to study the pattern on the carpet.

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