The Naked Truth
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Larry Charles, U.S., Universal
For all the talk about how “shocking” Borat was, its $128 million gross tells a slightly different story. Borat and his unsuspecting victims behaved in ways that were tasteless, ludicrous, and offensive to our sensibilities, but we obviously watched, and we told our friends to watch. It may have offended, but it did so relatively palatably, and we made it an unlikely hit. The Borat phenomenon was propelled by word of mouth. It’s ironic, then, that word of mouth has sunk Brüno, precipitating first an unexpected drop-off in ticket sales from the Friday to Saturday of its opening weekend (some have speculated thanks to Twitter), then a 70% dive in the following weekend’s box-office that sealed its doom. Audiences clearly didn’t like what they were seeing; this time, it seemed, Sacha Baron Cohen had gone too far—and that may be a good thing.
So what, exactly, is Baron Cohen up to? Is he an opportunistic provocateur, exploiting our basest prejudices for the sake of cheap laughs? Or is he a sly satirist who uses cheap laughs to expose the very prejudices he ostensibly exploits? Answering these questions is especially difficult because the writer-performer behind Borat and Brüno usually refuses to address us as Sacha Baron Cohen. Opting instead to publicize and promote his movies in character, transforming their marketing into extended pieces of performance art, Baron Cohen has taken the question of authorial intention out of the public discourse surrounding his films, and in so doing, he has turned the tables on us as an audience. By denying us recourse to a clear statement of purpose, Baron Cohen has left us with the messy task of unpacking his movies’ “meanings” and wondering whether it’s okay for him to make certain jokes and whether it’s proper for us—or others—to laugh at them.
At least in the case of Borat, sympathizers could turn to Baron Cohen’s Jewishness as evidence of a certain self-awareness: the movie’s explicitly racist humor, the reasoning goes, must be deconstructive because its author belongs to a racial out-group. Brüno, on the other hand, is far more ambiguous by design—because of his straightness and the level of caricature involved, Baron Cohen necessarily invites charges of “gay minstrelsy,” because that is, quite simply, what he’s doing with his lead performance. Setting aside the movie’s virtues, Brüno presents mainstream, principally hetero audiences with a straight performer playing an aggressively and outrageously stereotypical gay character—one who gets an anal bleaching, thrusts his naked penis at the camera during a TV show, and has ridiculous anal sex with the aid of dustbusters and champagne bottles—and unless Baron Cohen publicly disavows homophobic readings of his film, he must accept the fact that, for some audiences, Brüno reifies the very stereotypes others will see it as challenging and exposing, that it plays to homophobes and homophiles alike, albeit in contradictory ways.
If Baron Cohen succeeds at all as an artist, though, his success lies less in his capacity to shock and amuse than in his uncanny ability to use shock-comedy to stimulate cultural dialogue. Borat and Brüno have both generated thousands of words and hours of discussion about the ethics of representation and the appropriateness of certain kinds of humor. They show us distorted, manipulated, and altogether distressing versions of ourselves and ask us to laugh. The question is: what do we do with that laughter? Whether or not these movies work as movies, they have become pop cultural events that are, in their own ways, troubling and exciting. It’s rare for any Hollywood film to stimulate this kind of serious reflection or debate; that Baron Cohen’s movies do so is remarkable, and there can be no doubt that this extraordinary effect is a consequence of his authorial silence. His refusal to explain and contextualize may legitimize politically retrograde responses to his films, but his self-elision also makes central the relationship of text to audience. We can accept or reject, enjoy or condemn, but to do so, we must invoke our own aesthetic, social, cultural, political, and ethical sensibilities while considering our own, sometimes problematic, responses to his movies. We laugh or we don’t laugh; we sit in wonder at the level of prejudice and ignorance displayed by the people he ambushes—or maybe we sit uncomfortably as we realize that we (or others) are laughing at the “wrong” things or laughing (or not laughing) for the “wrong” reasons; then we decide what to make of these responses.
Brüno, the movie itself, unlike its predecessor, isn’t a particularly successful piece of filmmaking—scattered, occasionally tedious, and only sometimes very funny, it hardly seems aesthetically worthy of the controversy it has sparked. In fact, Brüno barely stretches past 80 minutes in spite of an excessive amount of padding (it even ends with an all-star music video). The film opens with its eponymous character getting fired from his position as host of the Austrian TV program Funkyzeit mit Brüno and then heading to L.A. on a quest to become überfamous. From there, Brüno travels to the Middle East, Africa, and the American South as he attempts to launch another TV show, start a charity, broker peace between Israel and Palestine, adopt an African baby, and “cure” his homosexuality. Brüno’s voiceover, along with a tenuous central love story between our wandering hero and his assistant’s assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), loosely ties the whole thing together, but one gets the sense that Cohen and director Larry Charles never settled on a clear idea of what Brüno was supposed to be about in the first place.
On Da Ali G Show, Funkyzeit mit Brüno functioned as a platform for lampooning fashion and celebrity culture that would occasionally venture to investigate American attitudes towards sexuality. Brüno touches upon all of these subjects, plus racism, the swinger lifestyle, lousy parenting, international politics, and more, tackling such a random menu of issues that it feels both overstuffed and underdeveloped at the same time. Baron Cohen maintains the basic approach that yielded hilariously shocking results in Ali G and Borat: create a simple interview or documentary-style set-up; stay in character whatever happens; and slowly, deliberately give one’s subjects all the rope they need to hang themselves. And against all odds, and despite Baron Cohen’s growing international celebrity, the approach still sometimes works. Within the movie’s first few minutes, Baron Cohen hits an interview with supermodel Heather Hahn out of the park (Brüno marvels at the complexity of her job—she has to walk right foot, then left foot, then right, then left, then turn—and Hahn concurs without missing a beat, “Especially the turn; it’s so scary”). Later, a “second stage gay converter” reveals himself to be an appalling misogynist with barely a nudge from Brüno. These moments recall the simple brilliance of the comedian’s Ali G days, before he felt the need to string his skits together into awkward feature-length narratives.
Too often, though, Brüno feels overly calculated and desperate to make a point. In his most misguided attempt at securing easy fame, Brüno decides to dupe Ron Paul into making a sex tape with him, staging an interview that slowly evolves into a rather pathetic stab at seduction. The problem, though, is that Paul basically doesn’t take the bait until Brüno’s behavior becomes overtly and unacceptably predatory, and even then, Paul’s reaction, aside from an unfortunate turn of phrase (he exclaims that Brüno is “queer as a crazy”) is hardly disproportionate. Similarly, when Brüno goes on a hunting trip with three straight guys in Alabama, the joke mostly seems to be on Baron Cohen. The men, while hardly enthusiastic about their effeminate camping partner, react with stoicism to Baron Cohen’s theatrics. So he steps up his efforts, which only elicit a measurable response after Brüno tries to enter their tents in various states of undress during the middle of the night. One can certainly read some form of homophobia into Paul’s and the hunters’ interactions with Brüno, but Baron Cohen descends so deeply into caricature to make his point that we’re not exactly on Brüno’s side when those homophobic reactions come. More fatally, the sequences themselves are more tiresome than funny.
It’s too simple, though, to say that Baron Cohen and Brüno go “too far” or that they indulge homophobia rather than critique it. Late in the film, Brüno reduces grown men at an Arkansas wrestling match to tears when, in the middle of a fight, he begins to make out with Lutz. Charles and Baron Cohen stage this scene as the climactic reconciliation of Brüno’s central lovers. In so doing, they’re deftly deploying the basic language of narrative cinema to subvert the response of the Arkansas audience. If Brüno were a “real” movie, tears would indeed be an appropriate, though excessive, reaction to this romantic climax, but here, the tears only reveal gay panic. By parodying melodrama, Baron Cohen and Charles problematize the tears, which leads us to the most important question raised by the sequence: when the audiences watching Brüno laugh—as they undoubtedly will—are they laughing at the hatred expressed by the tears, the grotesquerie of the romantic display, or the tonal friction between the romantic climax of the film’s narrative and the violence surrounding it?
The persistence of these questions suggests that Brüno remains worthy of consideration even, or perhaps especially, in the moments it feels most like a failure. To return to Ron Paul and the Arkansas hunters: who’s to say if and when Brüno crosses the line from being flamboyant to predatory; who determines when we should or shouldn’t be on his side? As Brüno, Baron Cohen embodies two of the most pervasive stereotypes of gay men—sexual aggression and effeminacy. Yet these characteristics are not, in themselves, objectionable qualities in any person, despite persistent negative associations with them in mainstream American culture and, indeed, mainstream American gay culture as well.
Brüno doesn’t lack for offensive content—Paula Abdul sitting on a Mexican worker as though he’s furniture, a baby posing as a crucified Jesus for a photo shoot, Brittny Gastineau saying Jamie Lynn Spears should abort her fetus—but its representation of gayness, as an identity and as sexual practice, has elicited the most vocal objections. It’s clear Baron Cohen has touched a nerve by confronting us with the aspects of gay male identity that are least palatable to mainstream culture. When Barbara Walters protests that she simply doesn’t “need to know how you are doing anal intercourse,” she is betraying her discomfort despite her best intentions. And what could be less palatable to most people than gay anal sex? So Brüno’s accoutrement-assisted sex is too obscene, too provocative, too—well—just too damn much. But the squeamishness it causes is sociologically meaningful: it’s only offensive or shocking because people aren’t comfortable with what they’re seeing.
Borat was a relatively easy movie to watch despite all the ethical issues it raised. People (backwards, poorer, less educated people) humiliated themselves; Baron Cohen let them; and we laughed. The joke was on them. In Brüno, though, many of Baron Cohen’s subjects manage to hold their own against him. Sometimes the joke is on them, but sometimes Baron Cohen is using them or his character to push us, almost asking us to say exactly when he passes the point of acceptability and loses our sympathy. Perhaps Brüno is nothing more than a cheap provocation. But it’s possible that Brüno really is exposing prejudice—not “theirs,” but ours.