Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yes, Bruno Is Indeed Gay

Funny, shocking, absurd, blah, blah, blah... like every film these days, reviewers have buried "Bruno" in punchy adjectives that are primed to make their way into TV ads and onto DVD covers. Few of these assessments are off base, but I have not seen anyone append what I think is the most appropriate adjective of all: loaded – as in, really loaded. "Bruno" is a film that so heavily hinges on the opinions of the viewer that it is impossible to assess objectively.

At the same time, the film's sole purpose is to elicit a reaction – a strong one. It cannot help but lead to passionate discussion. Anyone and everyone will potentially be offended by this film. What the MPAA loves to call "graphic nudity" is definitely present here. (You have to love that term. Is it like nudity... only more so?) So are a myriad of sexual acts that range from tasteless to downright campy. Sacha Baron Cohen's character is a shameless stereotype, and not a frame of the film makes any apologies for it. Thing is, the stereotyping is self-conscious. There is little doubt that "Bruno" comes from a decidedly pro-gay rights stance. Yet, I have come to realize that this movie will undoubtedly serve as a call to action for those who are of a different persuasion.

The film is so relentless that it is bound to elicit anger from those who are not down with the whole gay thing. The group of guys behind me in the theater are a good example. For the first hour, they repeated, "He is so gay," on a minute-by-minute basis, in a vain attempt to process what they were seeing. By the end of the film, they were slinging epithets at the screen with such seething anger that my friend and I were genuinely unsettled. It is hard to say if there is a better approach to take with such audience members as these; something tells me that calm reason may be equally ineffective.

For better or for worse, therein lies the appeal for the more tolerant members of the audience. The stereotypical nature of the main character is so absurdly over-the-top that it is clearly meant to turn the stereotype back onto those who cleave to it. Bruno is designed to push these prejudices to such an extreme that they are laughable for those who know better and downright horrifying for those who do not.

Given the reaction of my neighbors, it worked.

By the time the film reaches its astonishing climax, it is hard to decide whether Cohen is targeting the people on the screen, or if he is assaulting the detractors in the audience. It makes the film a very potent experience; one almost feels that the violent, drunken wrestling fans in the film are spilling over into the theater. Even so, I would be lying if I claimed that I did not enjoy listening to the guys behind me resort to frantic anger in an attempt to hide their fear. The climactic scene, after all, sums up the intended effect of the film: to ensnare the intolerant, then berate them.

It may not make the film as noble of an endeavor as it could have been, but it makes it damn funny at times. Bruno getting chased around an Israeli street because of his unusual fashion choice must be seen to believed. His attempts at likening a group of hunters to the girls of "Sex and the City" gets a beautifully rigid response from the men. Watching Bruno attend a swingers' party where he is forced to make a hasty escape (for which no man, gay or straight, would blame him) is quite memorable. Other moments do feel a bit cheap, relying on shock value more so than satire. I do not think it makes a hotel manager intolerant if he is rendered speechless by finding a room's walls covered in human excrement; it just makes him sane. Even that bit, however, segues into something better: Bruno tackling Westboro Baptist Church foot-soldiers while wearing bondage gear. No amount of bad taste is going to make that less satisfying.

"Bruno" does not devote all of its time to satirizing gay-straight tensions. The film's plot is driven by Bruno's desire to achieve fame, and it yields some great results. He travels to the Middle East (he wants to fix it), where one terrorist's sense of humor makes the aforementioned hunters look positively genial. There is also a plotline involving his adoption of an African baby, in an attempt to be chic. Cohen, as with all other things, takes this bit as far as he possibly can but, unlike the sexuality-related humor, this bit of satire is pitch-perfect throughout. Just wait until you see how the baby travels to the United States. It's funny (read: horrifying) because it's true.

Cohen's talent as a performer, above all else, is difficult to question. There is not a second where he breaks character in this film. His life is, without hyperbole, in genuine danger at a number of points in this film and, even so, he does not lose a beat. His abandon is, perhaps, the most powerful statement the film has to make: Bruno will never change, much less apologize for who he is.

The film, however, is ultimately a blunt tool for a delicate job. Where the job need not be done (in other words, where viewers are already comfortable with gay culture and are smart enough to identify stereotypes), there are a lot of laughs to be had. For those who land at the opposite end of the spectrum, "Transformers 2" would be a much more suitable choice. Finally, for those who are ambivalent (undoubtedly the vast majority), the film will only be effective where it finds an eye for satire and a suspended sense of decorum.

Larry Charles, the film's director, seems to be making a career out of brash, satirical documentaries. His previous film, "Religulous" took an equally volatile topic by the horns, but it benefitted from the decidedly intellectual approach of its star, Bill Maher. That film had the precision "Bruno" occasionally lacks and it prioritized being honest with its detractors over inflaming them. Of course, it was still really loaded.

UPDATE (8/4/09): The "terrorist" mentioned above is now claiming to have been misrepresented. This report, from Britain's SkyNews, contains some pretty damning evidence to back that up, even if you ignore the sensationalist title of the clip. One doubts that this will be the only allegation of this sort against the film.

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