The Traditional Sniffing of the Balls: A Review of Brüno
When Sacha Baron Cohen, in full costume as fictional gay Austrian TV host Brüno, descended onto Eminem at this year’s MTV Movie Awards, viewers witnessed more than just a vulgar (staged) prank. The event was also a kind of ceremonial passing of the torch from one shock-value entertainer to another. Cohen’s Borat, like Eminem’s lyrics, had a polarizing effect on audiences, but Brüno dives crotch-first into a subject that has always drawn flack (and publicity) for Em: homophobia. So is Cohen making fun of gays or gay-bashers? In short, upon whom is the joke?
Unfortunately, Cohen, like Mr. Mathers, wants to have it both ways. He’d like to be seen as promoting tolerance, so he shoots scenes making fun of homophobes, including reverends who attempt to convert Brüno to heterosexuality. Elton John, who famously bestowed gay cred on Eminem at the 2001 Grammies, makes a cameo during a celebrity-studded video at Brüno‘s conclusion. Snoop Dogg also appears in that video, speaking the words that are probably supposed to sum up the film: “He’s gay, he’s gay. [Snoop shrugs.] Okay.”
The problem is that Brüno (along with his assistant Lutz, played by Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten) is the only openly gay character in the film, so, for better or worse, he represents homosexuality in the context of the movie. And it’s all worse. Brüno is an ignorant, stupid narcissist whose sexual tastes (orientation aside) are kinky at best and perverted at worst. He doesn’t have a single likable or redeeming moment. Because of this, many of the scenes in which unwitting Americans are disgusted by Brüno play out in favor of prejudice. For example, a morning TV show audience in Texas reacts with boos when Brüno says he’s looking for “Mr. Right.” When he goes on to talk about bringing a baby along on risqué hot tub adventures, the audience’s reaction seems to be confirmed and justified.
Cohen would probably argue that Brüno is supposed to parody gay stereotypes rather than represent actual gay people, but he’d be splitting hairs. To quote Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, “Be careful of what you make fun of or you might become it.” The bottom line is that homophobes (who will probably make up a significant proportion of this movie’s ticket sales) probably won’t find much in this movie to make them question their biases.
Then again, if there’s anything to be learned from the controversies surrounding Eminem it’s that a performer’s talent will trump a questionable message. Cohen is about as gifted at comedy as Em is at rhyming, which is to say very very gifted, and there are hilarious jokes sprinkled liberally throughout this film. Take the running gag of using day laborers as human furniture, or the uncomfortable silence that occurs after Brüno tells a group of straight hunters that the stars in the night sky remind him of “all the hot guys in the world.” People looking for a positive social message may be disappointed, but people looking for laughs will not.
But then again again, Eminem has also shown us that a shocking shtick, no matter how brilliant, wears thin after a while. Brüno‘s still funny, but it’s repeating the story and techniques of Borat, only with less coherence. Outrageous sketches (Brüno interviews Paula Abdul, Brüno goes to the Middle East, Brüno joins the army) fly by so quickly that I got distracted trying to figure out how some of them were pulled off–or how authentic any of them were. Cohen’s created a good formula, but I doubt he’ll be able to use it effectively again. Besides, people are going to start recognizing his face.
So what’s next? I’d like to think that Cohen will come up with some new ideas and write comedy that’s a little more thought-provoking than, as A. O. Scott put it, “will you look at those dumb rednecks.” However, it’s probably more likely that he’ll disappear for a few years and then return with the same act he was doing before.
Either way, I’m tired of typing umlauts. Review over.