Editor's Note: Guest blogger Randy Shulman is co-publisher and editor-in-chief of Metro Weekly, a GLBT newsmagazine based in Washington, D.C. Visit them at www.metroweekly.com.
I'll admit, I laughed my ass off throughout Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen's latest shockfest. Opening this weekend to equal amounts critical acclaim and scorn, the movie is a giddy mash-up of social, sophomoric and startling humor.
And if it isn't quite the comedic head rush that Baron Cohen's 2006 Borat turned out to be, it's because we know by now pretty much what to expect. The surprising elements of Baron Cohen's guerilla tactics are diminished on this second go-around; Brüno is less of a case of "I can't believe they did that" and more a case of, "Okay, take it to the next level guys, show us how far you're willing to go next."
Well, they go pretty damn far.
On the whole, Brüno seems slightly more contrived than Borat, boasting more obviously staged routines meant to service the movie's spider-web-thin narrative. Baron Cohen swaps Borat's prime target of xenophobia with homophobia, and Brüno's raison d'être is to startle us on a prurient level, delving deep into America's general discomfort with not just sexuality, but basic sex.
Like Borat, Brüno seems to exist chiefly to offend. But who exactly is it offending?
The character of Brüno -- a gay Austrian fashonista with a penchant for Velcro suits and dildos -- is so outlandish, so ridiculous, you have a hard time believing anyone would fall for his shtick. Maybe that's why some of the setups seem more forced than those in Borat, where the main character could elicit alarm on a New York subway just by having a live rooster tumble from his suitcase. People believed Borat was real. Few of the folks skewered by Brüno could have actually believed this mincing fool was anything but an elaborate concoction, a character invention. And the nonplussed reactions that Brüno's bizarre actions get seem to bear this out. "Have a nice life," says a psychic to Brüno after being forced to watch him engage in a rude, lewd pantomime.
No matter, someone will find Brüno offensive. But that someone certainly isn't me. I recall a time in the late '80s and early '90s when political correctness reigned with an iron fist, and cinematic humor took a turn so bland it made sugar free vanilla soft serve ice cream seem scandalous.
Most comedies weren't merely bad back then, they were bad and boring. It wasn't until the Farrelly Brothers exploded onto the scene in 1998 with the uproariously indecent There's Something About Mary that a sense of courage was regained in motion picture comedy.
Now, of course, the gloves are completely off, thanks to folks like Judd Apatow, Seth MacFarlane, and Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the "crude bar" raised with each new laughfest. Popular humor is no longer a carefully executed limbo, it's a spacious walkthrough. There's hardly a contemporary comedy - no matter how large or small - that doesn't contain at least one complete gross-out moment. (Okay, there was Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian, but that Ben Stiller time-waster hardly qualifies as a comedy, let alone a movie).
This isn't to suggest all comedies must aim below-the-belt to be funny - there's plenty to be said for smart, sophisticated comedy - but when you strip away the ability to poke fun at the expense of everyone, when you stifle a filmmaker's attempt to delve elbows-deep into the grimy muck of stereotyping, you perform a disservice to all forms of humor.
Yes, there are things that even today remain taboo. Borscht-belter Mel Brooks would never get away with some of the things he so deftly lampooned in 1974's Blazing Saddles - but when judging any comedy, the spirit and sensibility of the filmmaker must always be taken into account. Truly malicious humor is usually pretty easy to spot.
Baron Cohen is hardly malicious. Even one of his most potentially offensive gags in Borat - a racially appalling depiction of a Kazakhstan village's ritual known as "The Running of the Jews" - was less a jab at Jewish people and more a means of setting up his character's deeply-infused anti-Semitism, setting up an undercurrent that would propel countless jokes to come.
Brüno takes a similar tack, though Baron Cohen's swishy, mincing title character is, in this case, less a naïve, uniformed buffoon and more of an arrogant, self-absorbed schmuck. Like Borat, Brüno exists to produce discomfort in those unfortunate enough to be around him.
Yet unlike Borat, Brüno must produce his shocks not by outlandish social faux pas - like bringing a bag of feces to the dinner table, thereby forcing his hostesses to extol the modern marvels of the toilet flush, but by putting his sexuality blatantly, flagrantly on display.
The character of Brüno reduces the very idea of being gay to a cheap sexual thrill. In an era where we are finally, gradually proving to America that gays are not driven solely by hedonist desires, that we are, in fact, far, far more than what we do in our bedrooms, one could almost point to Baron Cohen's creation as a damaging, irresponsible stereotype, a reinforcement to the rest of America that homosexuals are sexual deviants and freaks. But Brüno is completely, utterly harmless. And here's why.
Homophobes aren't going to venture anywhere near a theater where Brüno is playing. And if they do, they'll walk out before the going gets really good. Meanwhile, those straight folk who choose to pad Brüno's box office this weekend are likely already in our court. They're wise to the joke, acutely aware that the sexual antics performed early on by Brüno and his boytoy are way beyond absurd. No one in their right mind will think gays stick champagne bottles up their butts. At least, not on a regular basis. Just special occasions.
Still, some gays will have a problem with Brüno. GLAAD has already put forth its own cautionary missive, but it's a knee-jerk statement, less a moment of clarity from the flailing cultural watchdog and a more of a "We're still here to state the obvious" response - and I count myself thankful not to be among them.
I howled, loud and often, during Brüno. At times I thought Baron Cohen's choice of unwitting subjects a little too easy (the climactic cage wrestling match is pretty much a "let's shoot fish in the barrel" moment), and other times a little too queasy (a scene in which Brüno seduces Congressman Ron Paul is undeniably unsettling, yet Baron Cohen justifies his choice of Paul with a misnomer punchline).
And there were several instances I found myself bewildered as to how the movie evaded an NC-17 rating. A close up of a madly swinging, singing semi-erect penis left me agog (but happy). Brüno's adoption (actually, a swap for an iPod) of an African baby - his own cherished "gayby" - provides fodder for alarming, off-putting jokes that don't always quite hit the mark in the intended satirical manner. And Brüno's attempts to turn straight are as funny as they are futile.
Yet nothing in the 83-minute movie is more inspired than the scene in which Bruno sits among three redneck hunters, campfire crackling, and softly wonders about "all the other guys out there." The comment produces the movie's most authentically uneasy - and genuinely hilarious - moment, as director Larry Charles allows the camera to linger for an interminable length of time while the hunters sit in awkward silence, attempting to, perhaps, wish away this preening queen in their midst. Sometime later during the camping scene things turn threatening, and we find ourselves fearing for Baron Cohen's safety. But this occurs only because Brüno has provoked one of the hunters past a point of no return.
And that's the only serious flaw with Brüno. Most of the subjects of Baron Cohen's guerilla tactics react nonchalantly to the character's overt gayness. It's not until Brüno stirs things up beyond the measure of basic human decency, that people turn on him (or run from him). For instance, during a rural Alabama swinger's party, Brüno gently caresses the men while they're busy humping their women. "Stop touching me!" growls one of the men, and you really can't blame him. He's not gay, and he'd prefer not to be fondled by a lanky, blond Austrian fellah. Earlier, Brüno informs a largely African-American TV talk show audience, "I gave my baby a traditional African name -- O.J.," sparking requisite cries of outrage.
Ultimately, however, Brüno leaves us feeling less outraged and more like we took a wild, obscene ride through a forbidden alternate universe. Sure, it holds up a mirror to society - and we can analyze its social value until we're blue in the balls.
But let's be honest, it doesn't have to have any redeeming social value -- it only needs to make us laugh. Which it does. Fitfully.
And, when you get right down to it, isn't that what comedy's all about?