Bamboo Review?: Bruno
I’m putting a question mark, because I’m not really going to review “Bruno”, in the sense of come down with an actual opinion about whether it’s good or not, homophobic or not—I think that’s really up to the individual viewer, and more to the point, it was obviously made to be ambiguous enough that it’s really hard to say what the point is, though I strongly suspect that the joke’s on anyone who finds himself upset by Bruno’s over-the-top gayness. After reading Sarah Seltzer’s thoughtful review, I did want to add some thoughts.
As the character on the Ali G show, Bruno was funniest when exploiting the fear/desire continuum that feeds homophobia. Any observer of homophobia knows what I’m talking about—homophobic straight people (or “straight” people in many cases) have all these longings to do things that are considered “gay”, and the stronger the desire, often the stronger the homophobia. And therefore the stronger the need to police your own behavior to make sure you don’t enjoy things that are gay. Which means that straight people are often paranoid, grim, and humorless, spending so much time policing their own desires that they can’t have any fun. Bruno can, in his best moments, expose how straight people are so intent on oppressing gay people that they oppress themselves. I’m sure you’ve seen the funniest Bruno sketch ever, and it’s funny because of this.
It’s also funny because of the second best thing Bruno does, which is hoodwink you with the ridiculousness of himself before hitting you over the head with the ridiculousness of straight people behavior. Your tolerance for this argument—that everyone is kind of ridiculous, so we should just relax and stop trying to control and judge others—will probably determine how much you enjoy certain segments of the movie “Bruno”. When “Bruno” lands its best punches, it’s usually in this vein, and despite people’s concerns that Sacha Baron Cohen is cognizant of this, he’s not subtle at all about making his view on this clear. At one point, Bruno is interviewing an ex-gay “therapist” about how to police himself for gayness (the conceit of the second half of the movie is that Bruno decides to become straight), and he asks the guy, “Can I be fabulous?” It’s a clean punch on the nose of the culture of homophobic policing, and its grim, joyless nature. Same story with the scenes involving cage fighting and a swingers party—the takeaway is that straight people have no sense of humor about themselves, and they are particularly blind to how ridiculous their sex lives are.
I can’t say that I don’t believe that the intent of the movie is to aggressively confront the homophobia that defines straight culture and makes it such a miserable culture. And in some scenes, it works perfectly, such as when Bruno goes to a swinger’s party and exposes the conservative, homophobic attitudes that the swinging culture inculcates. You really couldn’t pick a better example to show that homophobia gets traction with straight people who have massive insecurities that they’re forever and grimly trying to deny. Bruno’s gleeful perversion is contrasted with the strong whiff you get from the swingers that they’re trying to prove something, coupled with their overly strong insistence on seeing a difference between getting aroused by fucking near people of your own gender and fucking people of your own gender. (At least for the men.) Like in the video above, there’s a lot of humor in the fact that straight men do get pleasure, sexual and otherwise, out of each others’ bodies, but they can never, ever admit it, because they’re crippled by their own homophobic policing.
Does the movie succeed in its intent? Well…… that’s why I can’t say this is a review, because I really can’t say. On one hand, scenes like the swingers party or the interviews with ex-gay therapists land clean punches, but then things get muddier when Baron Cohen tries to prank the audience just like he’s pranking the people onscreen. We’re subjected to over-the-top gay stereotyping designed to draw out every homophobic belief the audience has ever had, but you’re never actually directly confronted with your complicity in the problem, so you’re left with the sense that people are just laughing at stereotypes because they believe them. So, it depends, I guess. For me, scenes that show Bruno and his lovers participating in completely over-the-top sex scenes where no perversion was left undone gave me a sense that the audience was meant to feel pangs of jealousy—presuming that you’re not the kind of person who is disturbed by lots and lots of dildos, then your reaction to the sex scenes is probably going to be a sense that you’re kind of dull because you’re probably not going to be having crazy, all-night sex with every prop imaginable any time soon. But I sincerely doubt that the scenes will do much for most straight people except reinforce negative stereotypes. They’re not going to be persuaded to ask why they think it’s so bad if someone has creative ways to pour champagne in the middle of an all-night sex session.
Then there’s the fact that the movie has two major targets, and Bruno functions differently depending on the target. The first half of the movie is a send-up of the “fame at all costs” mentality that defines our reality TV show era. In this section, Bruno is the villain—a brainless fame-seeker who works like Borat did, to get other people to play along with his most outrageous and immoral statements. Again, individual scenes land their punches squarely, particularly when Bruno is interviewing show business parents and asking if they’d do things like get their babies liposuction to be in a magazine spread. Fame culture has it coming, but of course, that means that Bruno’s homosexuality is implicated in his overall awfulness, and I don’t think that they really found a way to get around that issue or even tried to.
Then, as Sarah describes:
Then the movie switches gears, halfway through, and Brüno launches himself into the heart of masculine America to turn “straight,” thinking it’s the ticket to fame. Suddenly, it’s easier to side with him.
By the end of the movie, it’s a straight-up expose of how straight people need to chill the fuck out. But the incoherence of these two halves leaves you wondering what the point of all this is (besides getting laughs by fucking with taboo subjects). It seems to me that there really is, and I’m not just projecting a hope onto it, an intent to use the audience’s own prejudices to pull us in and then hit us over the head with our own bigotry. And make it all go down with some laughs. But does it work? Sarah points out the problem with this strategy:
From Apatow “bromances” to movies like “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” there’s a new trend of straight white dudes exploiting homophobic humor while denouncing homophobia, and many say Brüno fits right in with the trend.
For me, I was thinking as I left the movie that it exposed the flaw with some people’s version of “tolerance”—the problem of people who say things like, “I don’t hate gay people, but I don’t like it when they shove it in my face,” which is an unacceptable form of bigotry in itself. But I highly doubt that most of the audience will have that thought. Honestly, I have to admit that most people are going to walk away patting themselves on the back for being “tolerant” while feeling like they’re within their rights to keep policing themselves and others for acting “too gay”.
My conclusion was that it would probably work a lot better if the main writer/actor and the director weren’t straight dudes. But is that fair? I think so. Baron Cohen’s expose of fame-seeking is a little incoherent at times because he wouldn’t be who he was if he didn’t share in the delusion of ambition. Similarly, I don’t believe that there’s a straight man alive that hasn’t absorbed his own fears about homosexuality, and that makes it hard to be stay on the right side of the line. It made me more that the people that roamed around the U.S. with a fleet of security to provoke homophobic straight people and expose them weren’t actually gay. I think it would make more sense if they were.