Reader donations, many as small as just $1, have kept In These Times publishing for 45 years. Once you've finished reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support this work.
Many reviewers have been quick to point out the accuracy of the fake working title of British comic Sacha Baron Cohen's latest mockumentary flick: Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt. The title is so fitting, some publications have even printed it as the film’s actual name.To begin: Yes, there are some parts of Bruno that are legitimately funny, and yes, I laughed out loud. Multiple times.But the film’s gay jokes and obvious stereotyping come off as more flummoxing than funny. Just as with the film’s predecessor, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, some of my laughter stemmed from shock.The film's plot is threadbare, far more so than Borat's. Baron Cohen plays Brüno, one of his old characters from "Da Ali G Show," a gay Austrian fashionista determined to be his country's "most famous star since Adolf Hitler." (Baron Cohen, who is Jewish, never eases up on the Hitler jokes, even referring to Mel Gibson as "Der Führer.")Brüno is swishy and superficial, obsessed with celebrity, and thus the plot follows his attempts to achieve fame in America, at any cost. The phrase "gay minstrelsy" has been thrown around a lot in reviews, along with a few biting comparisons to C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man.And rightfully so. The first half-hour or so plays like a MAD TV skit gone horribly wrong, with Baron Cohen strutting about like a Pride Parade caricature in mesh and shiny Spandex, complete with a scene of anal bleaching and enough kinky sex acts to set the movement back about 20 years.But the best jokes came not when Baron Cohen stereotyped the LGBTQ community and its opponents but when he focused instead on making fun of the American ideal of celebrity.NOTE: If you're concerned about spoilers, I suggest you stop reading about here.The trouble with looking at Brüno as a satire is that, unlike its predecessor, which was an obvious (and effective) satire exposing American prejudices, Brüno barely tries to make a real point about the LGBTQ movement or American homophobia until its second half, when Brüno decides he has to become straight to obtain fame.That said, Brüno does succeed in exposing and satirizing, Borat-style, the "ex-gay"/"gay converter" ministry movement, with Brüno seeking help from the first “gay converting” minister, who extols the evils of Sinead O'Connor and the Indigo Girls and tells Bruno where he can go to be around straight guys (the gym, the military).He also visits a more intense "second stage" ministry (for individuals the movement finds to be especially deviant), where he is first greeted with the pastor's speech about women being evil and undesirable, giving the viewer little flecks of clues that what we've always assumed is true is true––that homosexuality is not something you can ever "recover" from, as the ministries have one believe.These segments succeed––well, sort of, although the tactics are often ridiculous, staged or otherwise exaggerated ad nauseam––in reminding people that gay panic does still exist—whether it's drunken good ol' boys at a cage-fighting match flying into rage at the sight of two dudes kissing, or Congressman Ron Paul calling Brüno a "queer" to his staff after Baron Cohen tries to make a sex tape with him.But the film could have been more effective as a mouthpiece for the LGBTQ community if Baron Cohen hadn't been so concerned with the cheap laugh.A scene where Brüno joins a U.S. Army boot camp could have made for a “teachable moment" about the presence of LGBTQ members of the military and made a case against “Don't Ask, Don't Tell.” But instead, Baron Cohen just snips at his commanding officers and wears a Dolce & Gabbana belt over his uniform.And what could have been an unusually gutsy look at homophobia within the African-American community—Brüno goes on a talk show with a predominantly-black audience and is applauded as a single dad until it is revealed he is gay—instead becomes combative and offensive with the introduction of Brüno's adopted African baby, a plotline intended to parody the celebrity use of adopted babies from the developing world as yuppie accessory.On the other hand, maybe it's Brüno's abrasive, in-your-face approach that could make the film an effective conversation starter. After all, when dealing with a topic (homophobia) which the American needs to discuss, sometimes subtlety needs to be thrown out the window.One of the best films of all time, Spike Lee's opus Do The Right Thing, puts the viewer in a headlock and delivers blows to the gut until viewers understand its message.Do The Right Thing wasn’t satirical or subtle, but it sparked meaningful dialogue about race relations in America. And unlike Brüno, Do The Right Thing didn't inflict any collateral damage on the community it depicts.But just as Lee's movie raised eyebrows and moved pens, since its release Brüno has been the topic du jour of a number of progressive, LGBTQ and social justice-oriented blogs, as well as more mainstream media outlets, with critics both attacking and defending the film. Bruno may be uncomfortable to watch, but it's certainly starting conversations.To be clear, I don’t really mean to compare Baron Cohen to Spike Lee. But sometimes confrontation and discomfort––granted, on two very different spectrums––are necessary to create a sense of urgency in starting the conversations about race, sexuality and gender—topics which so desperately need discussion.