Is Brüno savior or Antichrist? A sign of the apocalypse or hope for the future? Is he a trailblazing superhero putting the bad guys in their place, one bigot at a time, or just another oversexed stereotype for the majority to fear (one that merely replaces the big black cock with a limp wrist)? I tell you now: I don't fucking know. I've been thinking about it since seeing Brüno Friday. I even held off from posting this Monday in case something came to me. It hasn't. We label comedies as "side-splitting" all the time; for me Brüno was (and is) head-hurting.
The pain doesn't surprise me. It makes sense that no one -- not even the audience -- is spared when the goal of the master at work is to be as offensive as possible. Sacha Baron Cohen often comes off like John Waters: The 3-D Experience here. The most mind-boggling thing about Brüno is although he's founded on the basest gay stereotype possible (the swishy wisp of a man who craves fashion, fame and sex), he gives everyone he encounters reasons to hate him way beyond his gayness. (If you trip over a rainbow flag, what it represents becomes secondary to its obstruction.) And this is even when he's incorporating said gayness into his social assault, like when he's thrusting his barely clad crotch in front of a test group meant to represent Middle America, or simulating multiple varieties of oral sex on the ghost of Rob Pilatus in front of a straight-laced psychic, or nagging a dude he's camping with multiple times (sometimes clothed, sometimes not) in the wee hours of the night. He's not just there and queer and get over it; Brüno violates social boundaries so that his primary fault is his rudeness. Baron Cohen constructs these situations so that Brüno is judged not by the color of his skin (or the genitals of his lovers) but by the content of his character. There's something oddly humanizing in his beastly behavior.
Or is there? The danger here is that Brüno's over-the-top antics can easily confirm the suspicions of the hateful. Baron Cohen is presenting a cartoon character to people who don't think that gays are real people, anyway. A finer point is that if they come in with negative feelings towards gays, they leave with even worse ones toward this gay. Maybe Baron Cohen's driven by cynicism -- the bigots will never learn anyway, so you might as well fuck with them and make them as uncomfortable as they make gay people. Maybe he believes in the healing power of laughter. I think most likely, Baron Cohen lacks a clear agenda beyond self-service. The problematic nature of the Brüno character could be a sleight of hand -- any thinking person invested in gay equality (for or anti) focuses their eyes on Baron Cohen's stereotyping or what he's really saying, while he makes a getaway with the cash.
I admit that the experience of seeing Brüno was somewhat disappointing to me. I went ready to be enraged by both on-screen and in-house ignorance, and came up short. Unless we're counting the messages on Westboro Baptist Church signs, I don't think anyone even calls Brüno a "fag" until the climax, a man-on-man make-out session at a cage match that has its meth-faced, backwoodsy audience hanging their heads, gasping for air and punching themselves in the face in response (for all their willingness to play to type, they are real live Brünos). Earlier in the movie, when Brüno is at a swingers party begging a guy who's banging some girl to look him the the eyes and the guy then chastises him for "that queer shit," no one in the audience I sat in made a peep, despite the phrase falling like a punchline in timing and emphasis. And keep in mind that I saw this in Queens, which isn't exactly Utah, I know, but it also isn't nearly as liberal- or pro-gay seeming as, say the East Village. But look, in an audience of thug-lites and gelled meatheads, including the one sitting next to me (practically wrestling me for arm-rest dominance), the mood was one of hilarity, not disgust. That was even when Brüno indulged in explicit gay sex with his pygmy soul mate or when his penis repeatedly flopped around on-screen. Based on dozens of previous screenings at that theater, this audience isn't the brightest box of aisle lights, but they seemed to understand Brüno's subversiveness entirely. They even loved the Sex and the City joke, which isn't gross-out at all; it's just gay.
As the obvious maestro of this absurdity, it is Baron Cohen (and not Brüno) who's the real protagonist here. Still, if you're investing in the film's narrative, interference is impossible to avoid, and I think in the end Brüno ends up coming off as the bearer of righteous mischief. If Brüno is a Rorschach that essentially tells us what we already suspect, I experienced a room full of straight guys and their girlfriends knowing acceptance on Friday night. That alone was worth the cost of admission.
(Though this helped push it over the top.)