Even without a television, one could not avoid the ubiquity of the “Brüno” promotional machine. The months of planted news stories (like the fashion show disrupted by our Velcro-clad hero who stumbled onto the runway from backstage, dozens of pricey outfits stuck to him), his name with its saucy umlaut spray-painted everywhere, all pointing to the same thing: that “Brüno” would be a hilarious cultural corrective. Just like his predecessor, Borat, who exposed America’s vulgarity, ignorance and, more darkly, its entrenched anti-Semitism, Brüno would shine the light of truth on the last acceptable bigotry: homophobia. “Brüno” would be bracing and minty and somehow good for the gays for a variety of reasons.
First — in a reversal of the old principles of immunology where the merest hint of the antigen is introduced into the host body — this portrayal of an out, mincing, bubble-brained queen would be such a huge dose of gay, a veritable balloon drop of queer, that America would be inoculated; further, in an age where gay men and lesbians are clamoring to be seen as safe, hetero-normative, marriage-minded, child-rearing responsible citizens, it would be good to remember the adage that we are only as emancipated as the least among us, the most upsetting and problematic, and that Baron Cohen, in embodying an inexorably femme gay man who lives for sex and can’t even butch his way into a button-down collar, would be a perfect demonstration of that. Finally, I had hoped that here we’d have a character whose homosexuality would be just one strand of his essential self — along with his ignorance, narcissism and two-tone Zac Efron-last-week hair; a trait that is separable and easily teased-away. At long last, sexual inversion would take its place in the dustbin of history alongside other empty referenda on character such as red hair and left-handedness.
Baron Cohen’s Brüno is a gay minstrel, in the most literal sense of the word. Just as the characters of the burnt-cork vaudevillians had, bound up ineluctably with their dark complexions, traits like being shiftless, lazy, and “a-feared of spooks” as their eyes bugged out in Neanderthal, superstitious terror, Brüno’s homosexuality comes bundled up with a lot of unattractive software. He is an open hydrant of empty, venal ignorance, a fame-chasing, grandiose fucktard, all because he is a cockaholic (his term). The repeated pistoning of sucking dick has scrambled his brains, just as surely as a muddler pulverizes mint leaves. Make no mistake: It is gay sex that has made Brüno stupid. Perez Hilton has the sobriety, moral rectitude and class of Lewis Lapham by comparison.
Unlike Borat’s evident naiveté, with his cheap suit and wide-eyed wonder at American plenty, unfamiliar with the felicities of monied, first-world civilization, Brüno, a successful Austrian talk-show host, cuts a figure of slippery, continental media-savviness. The power dynamic is completely reversed here. The obvious class differences between Brüno and his American subjects initially obliterate the sexual ones. It is, by now, a tired given that the presence of a camera has the taming effect of a curare dart, making people do things they would never normally agree to, but with the exception of brief interviews with Paula Abdul and Ron Paul (who really didn’t deserve this, if only for his having catalyzed the downfall of the vile Rudy Giuliani’s national political aspirations), most everyone else Brüno encounters is poor.
He interviews parents who are agenting their infant children for film work, asking them if their tots are comfortable working with dead or dying animals, mixing harsh chemicals, portraying Nazis … you get the picture. Later on in the film, there is a shot of a baby Jesus on the cross, with little tyke centurions milling around at the base. But it’s clearly been done with Photoshop. It’s insult upon injury to make people degrade themselves in theory, and then condemn them as if they’d actually done so in practice. Three men of demonstrably modest means in Alabama, their cheeks sunken with Appalachian want like Dust Bowl portraits, agree to take him hunting. Brüno, trying to pass, engages them in some enthusiastic banter about how much he loves “vah-ghee-nas.” The men look mildly amused, but again, they don’t take it and run with it. There is no trash-talking about women. Later that night by the fire, he relentlessly gender-fucks them, trying to liken the four of them to the “Sex and the City” girls. He compares the multitude of stars in the sky to how many hot guys there are in the world. This is followed by an excruciatingly long silence in which the men, humiliated and high-hatted, are unable to even look at one another.
Indeed, aside from Baron Cohen’s portrayal, the film is hearteningly scant in instances of overt homophobia. Brüno brushes past a group of “God Hates Fags” poster-toting crazies from Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church — lunatics infamous for being as vocal in their hatred of dead soldiers as sodomites, and more important, not there in response to him.
More often than not, people are merely mute with discomfort, politely waiting for the moments of childish provocation to pass. The Christian “therapist” who counsels men away from homosexuality, who it should be pointed out never once touts a “cure,” will not rise to the bait when Brüno tells him that he has perfect blow job lips. (It seems the height of perversion and merely an indication of how noxious the film that I should be defending an evangelical charlatan whose actions only increase the torment of already tortured gay men, but there you go.) A karate instructor demonstrates a series of evasive moves while Brüno is armed with dildos, teaching him how to avoid attacks from homosexuals. The instructor does his job gamely and with great dignity. The only victims in this joke are rape-minded, cock-drunk fags.
Even a crowd in Arkansas, having been lured to an arena with a chain-link-fenced boxing ring in the center; drunk, raucous, wearing concession T-shirts that read “My Asshole’s Just for Shitting,” don’t respond according to plan. Brüno, now posing as a mullet-wearing redneck named Straight Dave, whips the crowd into a Nascar-level frenzy about how happy they all are to be breeders (again, entirely personal professions of heterosexuality, no collective “Jew Down the Well” pronouncements against gays). Bringing an audience plant into the cage, they begin fighting, which in short order devolves into a clothes-stripping make-out session. Editing can only do so much, and while it is true that one drink and one chair are thrown, I would submit that this is standard operating procedure for such venues even when the spectators are completely satisfied. For the most part, after some raised eyebrows, dropped jaws and catcalling, the crowd leaves. And who can blame them? A theater full of queens come to hear Kristen Chenoweth would respond in much the same manner if the proceedings turned into a monster truck show. There is no larger cultural point to making someone flinch by giving them a chocolate truffle you’ve stuffed with anchovies.
The film is cringily thin broth, even as many will view Baron Cohen’s gay-face portrayal as a testament to his versatility as a performer. Such a performance by an out gay actor would have the opposite effect: It would be the final nail, confirming his essential uncastability. But no actual gay guy would ever have made this film. “Brüno” preaches a false emancipation. It’s Jerry Lewis playing Steve Biko. A shot of Snoop Dogg, mere seconds long, rapping in the film’s closing number — which includes Bono and Elton John — “He’s gay. He’s gay …” He shrugs. “OK,” does more to advance the cause than the previous, interminable 80 minutes.
If there is any comfort to take away from this it is that Baron Cohen exhibits a similar disconnect and misunderstanding about attitudes toward gay men as the government, since most polls show that Washington lags behind popular opinion when it comes to tolerance.
There will be those who will tell me to lighten up, and it’s not like I don’t want to. I really, really do. Brüno gets his anus bleached in the movie, whereas I don’t know if there is Clorox enough in the world to make me clean again.