Film Review by John Pietaro:
BRUNO, Universal Pictures, 2009
Sacha Baron Cohen has a tendency to pick the scabs off of our societal infections, if only to look closely at the festering within. Cohen, who turned the mirror on southern US conventions in last year’s Borat, exposing the racism and xenophobia that lurks in Dixie—and points east and west—has returned for another trip through this nation’s most embarrassing moments, but this time brought to us through the lens of the Bizarro world.
The character of Bruno Gehard, an oversexed, flamboyantly gay, Austrian “fashionista” whose behavior is hyper to the point of being overwhelming, was developed for Cohen’s cable television program “Da Ali G. Show” some years ago. All of the show’s characters, Borat, Bruno and Ali G himself were portrayed by Cohen, demonstrating his skill for characterization as much as his twisted sense of derring-do: each of the characters stumbled through unscripted interviews with unwitting targets who usually left the interview bewildered, agitated and unsure as to whether or not they’d been victimized by a Candid Camera for today’s dangerous times. While Borat, a supposed Kazakhstani with harshly anti-Semitic and sexist opinions, did little to foster relations with the Middle East, Bruno straddles the fence that was torn down by the Stonewall uprising forty years ago. Okay, maybe I should stop… I am not trying to say that this stuff is not funny: it was hard to sit through this and not laugh—hysterically most of the time. But the guffaws heard in the theatre all sounded like they were sharing space with grave discomfort, endless cringing and pure guilty pleasure. Yet it is clear that while exposing the rabid homophobia found in southern blue-collar communities, Cohen is both winking at and laughing at those in the know. It’s a slippery slope. But then so is the plot itself…
Bruno, the host of a European television show, finds himself jobless following a candidly filmed disaster at a very real Milan Week fashion show (Paul McCartney is seen in the audience). He of course relocates to the United States, seeking notoriety in L.A. and engaging in behavior that only begins with ‘outlandish. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture this amazingly flamboyant figure trying to interact with the so-called beautiful people and making a fool of everyone in the process. But as Cohen’s core goal here is to expose the ugliness beneath the gloss, he never comes close to leaving well-enough alone. Modeling himself on “Bradjolina”, Bruno even feels the need to illegally adopt an African baby (“I traded him for an Ipod”, he explains to a horrified talk show audience). He names the child “O.J.”, telling all that it’s a “traditional African-American name”, of course.
In an attempt to interview a harried Harrison Ford, Bruno is blown off with profanities by the irritated actor. More so, Cohen exposes singer Paula Abdul, one of the hosts of TV’s ‘American Idol’, in a horribly uncomfortable segment. All of his resources are spent on crew and interview site, so there’s no money left over for furniture. He acquires the use of three Mexican laborers to become the furniture (yes, you read this correctly). While the three were probably in on the nature of this gag, Abdul clearly was not, thus the frightening outcome of an interview about her humanitarian activities while sitting on the back of a middle-aged Mexican worker who’s seen looking visibly uncomfortable. Though he had her for a while, Cohen’s need to push the envelope to the furthest limits ultimately saw the singer leave in an embarrassed ‘huff’. But no more so than his biggest catch: former presidential candidate Ron Paul! Paul is discussing his election platform during his interview with Bruno when there’s an equipment failure and the discussion needs to be put on hold. In one of the most uncomfortable segments you’ll ever witness in a movie, Bruno takes Paul to his bedroom and attempts to awkwardly seduce the Congressman, who storms out of the suite in a flurry of furious choice statements including “queer!” So much for the Ron Paul revolution.
But the film doesn’t end with the humiliation of a few cultural icons, not at all. Bruno decides to tour the American south after being blacklisted in Hollywood, taking us into the Alabama offices of evangelist preachers who claim to be able to “cure” homosexuality (“You need to engage in activities with other men, being around strong men in good, manly activities” one of them says to him, stepping right into Bruno’s homoerotic trap). Of course he ends up on an overnight hunting expedition with guys who could be part of a routine by Larry the Cable Guy, straight out of ‘Hee Haw’—but are not. Though offering to climb into their tents while naked, Bruno somehow survives the night, but just barely. He also infiltrates an Alabama swingers’ party, again somehow coming away relatively unscathed, but the movie-goer watches these scenes with hands almost entirely covering the eyes, realizing that Cohen’s cinema verite cringe-fest is ultimately no joke.
This film climaxes, so to speak, with a temporarily macho Bruno in the part of Ultimate Fighting promoter “Straight Dave” speaking to a packed southern auditorium full of screaming fans. Remarkably, the crowd really does believe that “Straight Dave”, whose slogans are some of the harshest in homophobic history, is for real, and the beer-guzzling rightwing Nascar types in the house are whipped into a frenzy awaiting the bouts he is presenting. But “Dave” is joined by his male lover in the midst of all this and they begin embracing and writhing in an open-mouthed, graphic sexual display as infuriated and horrified spectators holler out violent threats and rush the cage, throwing beer and chairs over the fenced-in ring. While this episode was surely a set-up for the unsuspecting fans of uber-macho sport, it presents to us just how ugly the heart of America can be. The crowd’s response could only have been augmented with a cross-burning.
While most enlightened people see the character of Bruno in the context of guerilla humor--not as a mean-spirited caricature of a gay man but a means to expose the public’s hateful reaction to the lifestyle--one comes away wondering. If an apparently straight Cohen needs to use the worst stereotypes of gay culture as a means to poke fun at the red-faced reactions to it, whom is he ultimately serving? I won’t give up on the clear progressive message herein, even if its drowned in a sea of contemporary shock-value humor, but viewing the film from a Marxist perspective is like tip-toeing through a mine-field. We love it when Cohen has battled with hard-core rightists in the past—hip activists always get the joke--but wonder if the denizens of conservatism are just laughing at the titular character, using it to proved their judgmental views “correct”. In any case, Bruno is a trip through the underbelly of the good ol’ boys around us and possibly, quite possibly, within us too.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ‘POLITICAL AFFAIRS’ MAGAZINE ONLINE, JULY 2009