More than homophobic, ‘Bruno’ offends most everyone

[15 July 2009]

By Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

“How do you protect yourself from being attacked by homosexuals?” Sacha Baron Cohen asks in “Bruno,” his latest guerrilla-style, envelope-nuking spoof.

But while Cohen’s title character, with his blond highlights and Austrian lisp, is querying a guileless karate instructor — and getting a seemingly earnest demonstration of defensive moves in response — the question can be asked of “Bruno” itself:

How does the film — and its perpetrators, writer/star Cohen and director Larry Charles — fend off critics who decry Cohen’s latest in-your-face farce as homophobic?

And while gay groups may or may not have reason to be concerned about “Bruno” (we’ll get to that in a moment), Cohen’s no-holds-barred comedy featuring a super-swishy, super-idiotic celebrity wannabe and his outrageous ramblings around America, Europe, and the Middle East, isn’t just homophobic.

It’s people-phobic. Misanthropic. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation should not feel alone.

Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles are the (literal) butt of jokes in Cohen’s hyped-up follow-up to “Borat.” African Americans are lampooned. Pygmies mocked. Jews and Palestinians toyed with. Presidential candidate Ron Paul is cornered in a hotel bedroom with the title character, and emerges considerably less dignified for the experience. (How did the maverick libertarian get suckered into such a situation?)

Autism becomes a punch line. The pro-choice and pro-life debate is reduced to a throwaway one-liner. Runway models are ridiculed (OK, maybe they deserve it). The heterosexuality of A-list stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta is brought into question. Martial-arts cage-match aficionados are mocked.

And Alabamians? Well, the governor of the Yellowhammer State should just ban “Bruno” outright, lest the world come away from the (very hard) R-rated comedy — with its depiction of numskull hunters and National Guard nincompoops — under the impression that all of Alabama’s citizenry have IQs in the low double digits.

In short, “Bruno” will offend just about everybody.

And that’s probably Cohen’s plan. Although the writer and star and his director haven’t been talking to the press, Universal Pictures — which paid $42.5 million for distribution rights — issued a statement, in response to concerns raised by G.L.A.A.D and the Human Rights Campaign that the film might foster homophobia.

“‘Bruno’ uses provocative comedy to powerfully shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia,” the studio said. “By placing himself in radical and risky situations, Sacha Baron Cohen forces both the people Bruno meets and the audience itself to challenge their own stereotypes, preconceptions, and discomforts.”

I’m not sure what light is being shed with the lengthy close-up shot of the gyrating penis, but, hey, male frontal nudity is all the rage these days. And to give Cohen his due, he is by no means the first filmmaker to use shock comedy as a means to stoke controversy and debate.

“Monty Python’s Life of Brian” was deemed blasphemous in Christian circles, banned in some communities and countries, for its parallel-track parody tale of a bumbling messiah. Bill Maher’s “Religulous” (also directed by “Borat” and “Bruno’s” Charles) won no fans on the religious right. John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos,” starring the larger-than-life transsexual Divine, left audiences aghast when it came out. And “Team America: World Police,” from the creators of “South Park,” skewered Michael Bay and Arab terrorists, and included a vigorous sex scene between two anatomically correct marionettes.

“Part of Sacha Baron Cohen’s genius, and part of the raison d’etre of these movies, is that he addresses all these hot-button issues,” says Todd Phillips, director of “The Hangover” and “Old School” — and not one to shy away from extreme comedy himself.

“To me, what he’s doing is really social commentary. ‘The Hangover’ is just a comedy, and not at all necessarily a commentary on any important social issue — it’s a movie about bad decisions.

“But ‘Bruno,’ I think, is a movie ... that’s very much about pushing buttons, which is what he does so well.”

David Hauslaib, editorial director of the independent-minded gay blog, is approaching “Bruno” and Cohen with caution.

“I do not see Sacha Baron Cohen as an enemy to the gay community,” Hauslaib says. “I wouldn’t necessarily place him in the ally category, but I’m inclined to believe that he is using what could be branded as homophobic stereotypes to laugh at bigoted heterosexuals.

“And people in the gay community, or who are accepting of gay people, will understand — and be able to laugh at, and have a good time with, the movie and these types of jokes.

“The fear is that we’re going to have, perhaps, ignorant 16-year-old straight guys ... who will see this film, laugh at it in the theater, and make jokes about it afterwards with their friends. And because it’s on the big screen, this type of humor now becomes acceptable, and they get to make the same jokes at the expense of real gay people in everyday life.

“And I think that is a valid concern.”

Clearly, Cohen, Charles, and Universal have been concerned, too. Since its first public screening, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, in March, “Bruno” has been edited, reedited, and even reshot. A scene in which Bruno holds a news conference to announce his wedding to Lutz (Gustaf Hammerstan), his devoted factotum and lover — seen at Bruno’s side drooling and brain-damaged in a wheelchair, a victim of a mob bashing — was replaced with a more benign gay-marriage scene. (And the angry mob riot, which follows a martial-arts-cage match-turned-homoerotic-clinchfest, was toned down, too.)

A “We Are the World”-type musical coda, featuring Bono, Sting, Snoop Dogg, Elton John, and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, was added. A scene with LaToya Jackson and the “Mexican chair people” (gardeners paid a few extra bucks to act as furniture in an empty L.A. house) was dropped, out of respect for the bereaved older sister of Michael, the King of Pop. (For the record, footage of “American Idol” jurist Paula Abdul sitting on a Mexican remains.)

Whatever"Bruno’s” ultimate take at the box office (and my guess is, despite its big opening weekend, it won’t be as widely embraced as “Borat,” which took in a tidy $128.5 million domestically), gay and straight audiences will likely be divided over the big question: Is what Cohen doing a satire of homophobic impulses, a condemnation of bigotry, or merely a wild parody parade of homosexual stereotypes? Is the fetishistic, narcissistic, obliviously ill-informed Bruno holding a mirror up to his audience, or holding up a clown mask?

Or maybe he’s just holding us up at the box office?

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