Among the narrowly focused special-interest groups poised to get lathered up over Brüno — comic-critic Sacha Baron Cohen's new exercise in carefully calibrated bad taste — are Jews, blacks, hunters, wrestling fans, the military, Austrians, Hamas, Ron Paul, people who watch daytime talk shows, people born south of New Jersey. Oh yes, and gays.
In his follow-up to the wildly successful and outrageous Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Baron Cohen has again made a movie whose notoriety precedes it. And that has the gay and lesbian population feeling particularly anxious: Brüno's title character, first seen on Da Ali G Show on HBO, is a flamboyantly gay fashionista and seeker-of- celebrity who wants to be "the biggest Austrian superstar since Adolf Hitler." His sexual proclivities are extreme. His penis is on open display (OK, once), as is his capacity for shameless self-promotion.
Arguably, it's Brüno's insatiable desire to maneuver his Teutonic self into the public eye that's really the heart of the film and its social criticism. And the release of the film, so close to Michael Jackson's death, is one of those weird convergences of fact and fiction. Jackson never had to seek out fame, but judging by Brüno, his brand of eccentric celebrity still serves as tropes for the attention-hungry — including Jackson's sister LaToya, who was removed from a scene "out of respect for the Jackson family," according to a Universal representative.
But what's more of a legitimate concern for gays — and not just gays, of course — isn't Baron Cohen caricature of Brüno's sexuality, but how that portrayal will be received by the less-than-brilliant. Opinion is all over the map.
"Those of us at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation who saw Brüno agreed that it's not really helpful to try to critique this as a single film," said GLAAD's senior director of media programs, Rashad Robinson, in a prepared statement. "It's really a 90-minute series of sketches — some of which hit their mark, but some of which hit our community instead, and in ways that feel fundamentally antithetical to the intentions of the filmmakers."
Said Village Voice columnist and oft-cited font of gayness Michael Musto: "I thought it was uneven and thin, but very funny, and I loved the various set pieces involving outrageous sex. It would have been more effective if Brüno had been somewhat soulful in addition to being dumb and superficial — i.e., if he wasn't just using (his adopted) baby as an accessory — but then again, Borat did it with his sister, i.e., Baron Cohen is an equal opportunity offender. It's only weird that the filmmakers didn't go along with GLAAD's suggestion that they trim the hot-tub shot, yet they're cutting the LaToya bit 'out of respect for the family.'"
The aforementioned hot-tub shot is one of those instances in the film that purposely takes what are presumed to be some straight people's perceptions of the sex life of gays, and explodes them beyond recognition. Will straight audiences understand the overstatement?
"I think it's a very, very gay movie," said Corey Scholibo, arts and entertainment editor for the gay-centric Advocate magazine. "And I think gay people, when they see this film, are going to feel it's a movie that was made for them." But even while thinking Brüno was "hilarious" ("I spit my water out," he said), Scholibo said his personal jury is still out regarding the film and the larger straight population.
"I don't know," he said. "And I don't know specifically what the Borat audience was. I think young straight men who aren't gay-positive will be going to Brüno and laugh at it. Whether or not, in the process, Baron Cohen in some genius way undermines any of their fears — which is a very real possibility — that would be great. Or will they be laughing at the silly queers? They could say, 'This straight man went out and made fun of them,' not that he did that, but that's what they could think. It's kind of a performance art piece in a way. I don't know how it's going to play out, especially at a very heated time about gay rights in the United States."
In a way, the humor of Brüno is in a tradition of American humor that stretches back decades and decades, to the Lower East Side in the North to the Chitlin' Circuit of the South and points in between.
"I think it's important in life when you're dealing with the daily struggles of inequality that you take a second to sit back and laugh," said David Kilmnick, chief executive of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth. "That's always been the medicine for those who've been oppressed."