In Brüno, the fictional gay Austrian fashion reporter played by Sasha Baron Cohen loses the key to the bondage device shackling himself to his lover. They both lurch into a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church. You remember them. They held “Matthew Shepherd Entered Hell” signs at Shepherd’s funeral. This should be the most interesting moment in the movie. Brüno is more or less the fantasy of gay people that the WBC has produced and we are about to see them confront enemy number one. But the scene is fleeting. There’s no confrontation, no conversation, no interaction to speak of. Cohen gets himself hooked on their signs, they disentangle him from their signs, and one is left with the thought that Cohen has basically succeeded in confirming them in their beliefs.
This is the pattern throughout the entire film. Most people subject to his pranks simply walk away, and it’s a dignified response. When Da Ali G Show was first out, it reveled in revealing hypocrisy, forcing out the ugly or the incoherent in our leaders and in our celebrities. But Cohen has since taught us, along with a steady diet of reality television, that engagement with difference is a losing battle.
If you encounter someone who seems odd or strange, dismiss them. To stick around is to accrue humiliation. If you talk long enough, you’re bound to say something embarrassing that will then become a sound-bite played as the truth of your self. When Brüno interviews Ron Paul, he has no interest in engaging Ron Paul at the level of ideas. Remember when Ron Paul said during the Presidential Primary debates that the problem with the movement to end the ban on Gays in the Military was that Gay people want their rights for being gay, not for being human? I remember. But Brüno asks him almost nothing before taking off his pants in a lame attempt at seduction, to which Ron Paul… walks out.
Since one would assume that the joke of the film will be Brüno’s interactions with homophobes, Brüno encounters surprisingly little homophobia. And when he finds no homophobia, he just keeps making sexual advances until someone gets angry. The Swingers kick him out of their party. The hotel staff refuse to unlock him when he’s “lost the key” to his bondage harness. After his third advance on the redneck who took him camping, the redneck approaches the cameraman in order to stop the game. Most of the people he’s supposedly revealing seem entirely aware of the game, and by and large, they win.
There is really only one place where Brüno encounters truly violent homophobia. He stages a cage match where he plays “Straight Dave”—who incites the crowds to chants of “Straight Pride.” But once he starts making out with his “challenger”—the crowd turns on him and starts to…walk out. The few who stay quickly go on the attack. A thrown folding chair barely misses doing serious damage to Cohen and his partner. But is this really the best Cohen can do – a rowdy collection of wrestling fans with missing teeth are homophobic and easily moved to violence? What a revelation. How amusing.
There’s a similar dynamic with the mostly black studio audience that Brüno race baits on a talk show. He shows up with an African baby he claims to have swapped for an iPod. He makes incendiary comments, and the audience gets as ghetto as you might hope. But after his baby is taken from him by Child Services, Brüno reacts as a bereaved parent and the audience seems truly sympathetic. Their taunts about taking away his baby become mixed with sadness at what seems to be Brüno’s genuine distress. So the movie instantly moves to a montage of Brüno’s callous behavior towards the baby—lest anyone in the movie theatre have a genuine moment of feeling at a gay parent having his child taken away.
There are two sustaining jokes throughout the film. The first is that if you find stereotypical people, they will behave stereotypically. The second is that Cohen will always say something naughtier, more provoking, or more foul than you would have expected. When Brüno begins to ask a leader from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade about the fashion choices of his leader Osama, the audience literally gasped. He seemed to have crossed a line, and while we know he didn’t get shot (it would have made the news), we began to wonder just how Brüno would remain unharmed.
In the same way that Borat was supposed to be a fantasy of anti-semitism that served to expose anti-semetism, Brüno is a fantasy of homophobia that is supposed to expose homophobia. But it’s pretty easy to see the difference. Borat is an offensive bigot, and when people join him in his bigotry, they joke is on them. Brüno is an offensive homosexual, and no matter what, the joke is always on him. The swishiness of Brüno ultimately acts as a form of black-face, which explains why there are no actual gay people in the film.
As the movie progressed, I increasingly wanted Cohen to get hurt. And like a good entertainer, Cohen delivers. The most satisfying sequence of the film is when, having been ejected from the swingers’ party, a dominatrix pulls him into a bedroom and begins to whip him with her belt. It looks incredibly painful. The audience I saw the film with was cheering. Finally, Cohen can’t escape unscathed. He’s put this in motion, and now he has to take the consequences.
In the 1990’s, I remember taking The Real World very seriously. The idea was that we would see people as they truly were. I don’t think I was alone in believing that reality television would offer us documentary intimacy to lives we would never otherwise encounter. That it would make us more caring and sensitive. Twenty years later, it seems that humiliation is the dominant trope of our culture and Brüno encapsulates it perfectly. No wonder we’ve learned to walk out.