Saturday, November 28, 2009

Detractors of Brüno would say that it’s crude and tasteless and defenders would say that it exposes society’s homophobia. Personally, I don’t think it does a great job of the latter but it excels at the former.

That’s not to say that there isn’t homophobia present in Brüno, but it’s mainly from the expected sources (drunk fight fans and rednecks) and Sacha Baron Cohen has to push the buttons really hard to get a reaction. For instance, he goes hunting with a bunch of hicks. From the start we know they’re contemptuous of him. You can see it in their eyes and body language, and you can hear it their voices. But they tolerate his presence. And sure they tolerate him more than they usually would because they’re being filmed but he has to literally take all his clothes off before they get angry with him. Somehow their reaction doesn’t surprise me.

Nor does it surprise me when a bunch of fight fans riot when they’re deceived into attending a gay make-out session. In this scene Bruno turns up as a supposed heterosexual fight promoter (he calls himself ‘Straight Dave’). He goes on and on about fighting and crazy drunken apes hoot and holler from the stalls, but then Bruno and a guy start making out and stripping. Cue bottles and chairs being flung into the ring. Again this homophobia isn’t particularly surprising. First of all, you’re in Alabama. Secondly, you’re at a cage fighting event. And thirdly, you’ve deceived a few hundred people. I’m not surprised that they’re going to riot. They’re Neanderthals that are only interested in blood, beer and boobs. Their homophobia is worn as a badge of honour.

So I don’t think that Brüno provides any shocking revelations about the American male. We already know that the uber alpha man ape despises homosexuality above everything else – to them the thought of having a throbbing cock thrust into their hallowed anus is more terrifying than a city being felled by a nuclear bomb. In these terms, Borat was more successful. In Borat there’s that wonderful scene where Borat is being a jerk at a Southern dinner party. His hosts tolerate him with polite befuddlement because he’s a weird foreigner, but then he has the nerve to bring a black woman to the table. Somehow this is worse than him bringing back his own shit in a bag and he’s made to leave. So even though the scene is crude, the racism is exposed in a very subtle way.

This being said, Brüno is more successful than Borat in one important way. It’s funnier.

By far the best set-piece is when Bruno shows his pilot TV programme to a bunch of middle-aged Americans. Vacuous and celebrity obsessed, the show is ridiculous. Bruno talks about foetuses and he ‘interviews’ Harrison Ford (who only has two words to say to the Austrian – ‘Fuck off!’), but most heinous of all, it includes lots of homoerotic narcissism. Cue lots of lingering crotch shots as Bruno gyrates in slow motion. But just when you think this is bad enough, there’s a bit where we see a close up of a large, flaccid penis twirling and wagging in the air. Round and round it goes like a fleshy chain watch that’s meant to hypnotise you. But you can almost see the focus group vomiting. And just when you think Cohen has pushed this as far as it will go, the penis stands up, says ‘Bruno!’ and the camera flies into the urethra. For me, the sequence was gut-achingly funny, but for the focus group it was appalling.

But does this mean that the people in the focus group are homophobes? Not at all. And it’s telling that the people in the focus group objected to the stupidity of the whole thing. So I don’t think that their reaction illustrates intolerance. It just shows unease. I’m sure these people have never had homosexuality rubbed under their noses in this manner before.

This begs the question, is Bruno offensive to the gay community? I can’t answer that question, seeing as I’m a macho manly man, but Bruno is so over the top and so far removed from reality that I can’t imagine anyone could take his portrayal seriously. Bruno is a gay man on gayroids. Everything he does revolves around sex. He’s kind of the nightmare image that some people must have of homosexual men – that all they do all day long is suck and fuck.

To illustrate this, there’s a hilarious sequence where Bruno and his lover have sex in increasingly bizarre ways. At one point his boyfriend, who’s sitting on an office chair with wheels, propels himself onto Bruno’s cock by using a fire extinguisher. And at another point, Bruno’s lover is twirled 360 degrees on Bruno’s dick like he’s a second hand on a clock. I imagine some bozos out there think this is normal sexual practice in the gay community.

An amusing bit of social commentary is when Bruno decides he has to be straight in order to be a celebrity. He points out how the most successful actors in Hollywood are all heterosexual – he uses Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey as examples. Even though we’re slowly becoming more accepting of homosexuality, many people still feel the need to hide their sexual orientation. We’ve made progress as a society, but we’re still short of where we should be.

The depiction of straight sex is also very funny in this film. The closest Bruno gets to having sex with a woman involves some plastic Amazon whipping and verbally abusing him. Here heterosexual sex is strange and terrifying. At least when he’s pouring champagne out of his lover’s anus they seem to be having fun.

If the film has a message then I guess it’s that we should be more accepting of one another – we shouldn’t have to hide who we really are. But I think that this film will fail to convince anyone sitting on the fence. Anyone who is appalled by homosexuality is only going to be more disgusted, so in your face are the depictions of sexual behaviour. But anyone who is savvy enough to understand how gloriously ridiculous Bruno is will have a great time watching his antics.

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  1. Have you seen the conversation between Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwartzbaum on this one?

    Seems to get right at what you're addressing in your review.

  2. Yeah, I can see both points of view. The sex is relentless but at the same time it's very, very funny. I kind of wish the film would have had more variety but at the same time I was continuously laughing my arse off.