In my 2006 discussion of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, I voiced some serious concerns about Cohen's approach to his subject matter. At the time, I said--
"What separates Borat from the Jackass school of filmmaking is not the audacity and outrageousness of his public stunts (which, in my opinion, transcend Steve-O physicality and arrive at something much more meaningful,) but the political intent behind the humor. Because of the deeply unsettling political content of the film, Borat walks a razor-thin line between blistering social commentary and dangerously casual prejudice, but Cohen and the film achieve an absolute singularity of intent and vision. The question is, is the movie so smart and so strong that some of us end up laughing in sympathy and not in outrage? "
-- and after catching up with Cohen's latest film Brüno this past weekend, it seems to me that the comedian has finally crossed the line into prejudice. The most disappointing part of this realization is not so much that the film completely muffs its opportunity to address homophobia in the United States in a meaningful (and very funny) way, but that it muffs that opportunity out of sheer laziness. Apologists may argue that Cohen's recognition in the nation at large may have cost him the opportunity to execute his high-wire act with the hilarious intimacy on display in Borat, and maybe that was the case, but where the earlier film brought a immediacy to the subject of American prejudice by getting down and dirty in the homes and gathering places of the people, Brüno instead builds false spectacles to validate its own thesis that Americans are intolerant morons.
In Borat, Cohen put his ass on the line by walking into public situations, thereby violating the standards of polite American behavior and exposing the hypocrisy beneath the social contract; from his national anthem at the rodeo to his casual ride with sexist, racist frat boys in a Winnebago, Borat was a naive fiction, an outsider whose prejudices were mirrored inventions intended to draw out the opinions and ideas that lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to find a comfortable moment for their expression. What made the movie tick was Cohen's ability to infiltrate existing situations and events; it was the danger of his exposure, of the fabric of his fiction being pulled back to reveal the man behind the curtain, that gave the film its sense of danger. The real drama of Borat was found in seeing how far the character could go without having the film's entire premise collapse around him.
Brüno fails precisely because it lacks that sense of danger. There isn't a single moment in the film that crackles with the excitement of dangerous reality and those moments that might have worked are stripped of their power by manipulative editing. In fact, the only moment that resonated for me as a viewer was a terrific long silence, a silence provided by three hunters who, like me, were simply refusing to fall for Cohen's provocations. In general, and for whatever reason, Brüno is forced to manufacture its own big moments by staging large events, from a phony Jerry Springer-esque TV show that was seemingly intended to exploit the supposed racial divide over the issue of homosexuality to a phony Mixed Martial Arts event where Brüno appears in camoflage drag as a man named "Straight Dave" and ends up making out with another man after goading him into the ring. Neither of these scenes, the major set pieces of the film, work as provocations to the audience, nor do they carry a single revelation about American attitudes toward homosexuality or race. They fall flat because they lack the crucial power of political analysis that made Borat tick. Instead, time and again, Brüno states the obvious to film audiences ripe and ready to laugh at the titular character and his sexual proclivities.
Ultimately, it is the reality of homosexuality in America, never openly addressed in the film, that stands in the way of the film achieving its goals. Throughout the film, Cohen uses the hetero mythology of gay sex and a misapplied equation between homosexuality and sado-masochism to provoke everyday people and again and again, the overwhelming majority of them patiently tolerate his provocations. These results, from a clairvoyant who watches Brüno give a blow job to a supposed spirit to the three aforementioned hunters who refuse to rise to his baiting comments to a hotel staff who are more annoyed than nonplussed after finding Brüno in bed, chained in leather underwear to his assistant, prove less about our attitudes toward homosexuality than they do about the way in which we as a nation tolerate assholes.
Even when Cohen does his usual good job of giving his subjects the proper length of rope with which to hang themselves, say, in the case of a "gay conversion" minister who uses a conversation with Brüno to make sexist comments about the intolerability of women, the insights achieved underline Brüno's own problematic behavior. This is the major flaw in the conception of Brüno's character; Where Borat was a naive, unfailingly polite character on the surface, Brüno is a self-important television host who wants nothing more than to be famous. And while his actions mirror the superficial fumblings of celebrities across the culture, it only serves to remove Brüno another step further from the day-to-day life of the people he constantly tries to humiliate.
This is the film's greatest mistake. When Brüno acts, each undertaking associates celebrity and gay identity, marking them both as self-involved and superficial, a sort of aristocratic folly that exists outside the experience (and concern) of our culture at large. The most surprising moments in the film are not dangerous exposures of our cultural taboos, but the surprising tolerance of the American people when confronted by egotistical nonsense. What does that say about the film's stance toward homosexuality? Time and again, I have read reviews laughing at the film and taking it in stride, which proves how ineffective the movie is in making any cogent points about one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. If this movie worked as it should, there would certainly be discussion of the film's politics. Instead, everyone is discussing the relative merits of its jokes.
Sure, the film traffics in otherwise offensive stereotypes and hetero discomfort with gay sexual tropes in order to score some cheap laughs (sodomy via slingshot, exercise bike with dildo attached, etc), but here again, Brüno fails because the offense in question is a false construct. Most of the film's supposed "outrage" is desperately manufactured by the film's editing (reaction shots, cut aways to mortified bystanders, etc) and fails to materialize in audiences. Is there anyone who wouldn't be upset to see a child in a cardboard box come off of a luggage carousel? But it is the cheap approach to gay sex that disappoints; what is most disturbing about homophobia in America is the casual, institutional comfort and cultural protections afforded to those expressing discriminatory, homophobic opinions. Unfortunately, Brüno provides few insights and little to no access into that world, into the language and behavior of heterosexual hypocrisy. Instead, the film deals in its own prejudicial understanding of the culture and builds its own universe of meaningless, superfical insights into what is otherwise a very real, very meaningful problem, a problem that is also ripe with real, groundbreaking comedic possibilities. We deserved better.