I’m feeling conflicted. On the one hand Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to Borat is very funny but on the other after watching the movie I couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable, and not because of the way it sets up fame-whoring idiots and unsuspecting homophobes.
The basic plot is that Bruno is an arch, camp, Austrian fashionista with his own TV show, however after a disastrous accidental appearance at a fashion show dressed in a Velcro jumpsuit, he gets Schwartz-listed so he won’t be able to attend any more events. As a result he decides to jet off to America to become famous, along the way meeting up with unwitting celebrities, adopting a black baby and doing anything and everything he can think of to become well-known, even if it involves trying to seduce former presidential candidate Ron Paul into appearing in a sex tape. Thinking that his lack of success in finding fame if because he’s gay, Bruno decides he needs to become straight with the help of an ex-gay ministry, the US military, some old boy hunters and anyone else he can get to display discomfort in front of a gay man and to reveal their varying levels of homophobia.
While Borat seemed to push the envelope, Bruno takes things several steps further and many will watch the movie through their fingers, whether because of the edgy uneasiness of the convoluted way the movie sets people up to be ridiculed (even if the ridicule is often justified) or because they’re not as comfortable with graphic depictions of gay sex as they thought they were. And there are certainly a lot more simulation, mimes and references to gay sex than in any other mainstream movie ever. A lot of straight men will squirm a lot more than they thought they would as Baron Cohen is pretty fearless in what he’s prepared to put on screen.
When the film is on the ball it’s hilarious, and occasionally the movie exposes some truly worrying attitudes, such as a sequence where Bruno finds mothers who will exploit their infants by agreeing to put them in insanely offensive photoshoots, as long as it gets their little tyke the gig. It’s also pretty good not just at saying there’s a lot of homophobia out there – that’s not exactly news – but how so much of it is based on impressive stupidity and utterly unthinking ignorance. However there are also moments that feel oddly pointless, such as Bruno’s sojourn to the Middle East where he plans bring world peace. The whole sequence seems to exist just to show the lengths Cohen will go to, risking life and limb by criticising Osama Bin Laden’s fashion sense to a supposed terrorist and pissing off Orthodox Jews by subverting their conservative attire with a pair of hotpants. It’s amusing but feels slightly dropped in from a different film. Moments like these do mean that even at just over 80 minutes Bruno feels oddly unfocussed, and even with such ripe subjects as the world of celebrity and homophobia, some of the set-ups fall flat. Largely it keeps the laughs coming though, particularly as it gets through an awful lot in its short runtime, so that every time something doesn’t work it’ll gone a few seconds later and replaced by something funnier.
However, I can’t help thinking that while it’s definitely true that the uber-arch and camp Bruno does work to highlight how ridiculous gay stereotypes can be, there are a few too many jokes that only work if you think gay people doing something gay is utterly hilarious. There’s a slight sense of the movie trying to have its cake and eat, which would be fine if it wasn’t for the worry that there are a lot of people out there who will just look at Bruno as evidence of how wonderfully broad minded they are, while laughing like a drain at the gay man, rather than the farce of what he represents.
That said, the fact a movie this explicit, with endless simulations of gay sex can come out and have such a huge buzz and presumably a healthy run at the box office, has to be a step forward. And it’s also true that any movie that can leave an audience member asking this many questions and feeling this conflicted has to be doing something worthwhile – it’s certainly true that few films this year have left me with so much to contemplate – but I can’t help but feel that it’s playing a rather sneaky game, relying for its humour on a certain level of low-grade homophobia in the audience while trying to shield itself from such accusations by saying it’s exposing even worse anti-gay attitudes.
I sincerely hope that my worries are just me being paranoid and an overly-sensitive, namby panby liberal who wants to see prejudice everywhere I look, but I don’t think it is. Bruno is certainly evidence that gay visibility and acceptance have come an awful long way in the past few decades, but also shows that there’s still some way to go.
Overall Verdict: Bruno is undoubtedly a very funny movie and it exposes some gob-smackingly awful attitudes, but it’s sometime feels like the audience is laughing as much at gay people being gay as they are at the homophobes.