Heaven Is for Real
Faith-based film tries reaching past its audience, but falls back on preaching to its own choir way too much.
If those screwball lovers Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner ever hooked up and had sex, they'd do it the way Brüno and his "pygmy" paramour do in "Brüno": with ACME slingshots, projectiles, champagne bottles and a customized Rube Goldberg device that appears to have been built with materials from Home Depot by George Clooney's character in "Burn After Reading." The matinee audience with whom I saw "Brüno," Sacha Baron Cohen's partially improvised Üniversal Pictures remake of RW Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (with a happy ending!), howled at the grossness, the perversity, the preposterousness of it -- the same way audiences laughed and groaned at the explicitly cartoony perv-sex in John Waters movies of the 1970s. "Brüno" is rather tame compared to "Pink Flamingos" or "Female Trouble" -- in part because it's 2009 and not 1974, and the experience of "shock value" has changed considerably. Truth is, it's hard to be too terribly shocked by anything in the bland, artificial cocoon of the mall-tiplex, no matter what's playing.
Inevitably, in all comedy, the joke comes down to: What is the joke? I've had a grand old time reading bewildered critics -- amused, disgusted, even shocked -- try to puzzle out what Borat and Brüno (the characters and the movies) are really saying. The most entertaining explanations are by writers who don't necessarily know they're bewildered, or how much they're revealing about their own prejudices when they claim the movie is revealing the prejudices of the "real folks" on screen. (Hint: Even more so than in "Borat," the butt of the joke is the title character, not the "real people" with whom he interacts. Tricking people is not exactly the same as making fun of them -- and most of those who get punk'd react about the way you'd expect them to.)
So, Owen Gleiberman writes in Entertainment Weekly that "Brüno" is "movie is a toxic dart aimed at the spangly new heart of American hypocrisy: our fake-tolerant, fake-charitable, fake-liberated-yet-still-madly-closeted fame culture." Yes, Brüno himself clearly embodies those fake values. Gleiberman says:
The movie piles on gags about outré bedroom devices and butt bleaching, and when Brüno pays a visit to a psychic, he tries to bridge the spirit world by miming oral sex (and that's putting it mildly). The psychic's reaction isn't all that funny; mostly, he's just stoically embarrassed. But that's because Baron Cohen is really goofing on us, exploiting the audience's squeamish sexual anxiety only to explode it. Far more than in Borat, he holds a fun-house mirror up to our hidden prejudices, too.
What, then, are those hidden (?) prejudices and how does the movie reveal them -- if it does? First, let's compare the characters of Borat and Brüno, because they're not much alike at all. Borat presents himself as a naive foreigner who is trying to understand the ways of America, and he approaches many of his marks from an inferior position, seeking their help. He is a guest in our country and his initial naivete is endearing, which is why so many (unwisely) take him into their confidence. When he comes across as crude or backward, they feel rather protective of him. Until he rudely pushes them beyond the limits of their tolerance. The movie becomes a study in the limits of politeness, and how far we will go to avoid conflict -- especially when we're introduced to someone who initially seems so eager to please us. (Remember the flag-clad Borat at the rodeo and how far he has to push the crowd in order whip them into a near-lynch-mob frenzy? That -- like "Throw the Jew Down the Well" barroom singalong on "Da Ali G Show" -- was a scene about the behavior of groups in a party setting, not so much about bigotry or xenophobia. When bigotry is this overt, some in the "South Park"-era crowd can be seen making an attitude adjustment so they can take it ironically.)
Brüno is as clueless about how his behavior affects others as Borat, but he is arrogantly, imperiously unlikeable. He's a gay caricature, but even more crucially he's a Teutonic caricature (specifically Austrian, a countryman of Adolf Hitler and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Nobody is inclined to do Brüno any favors, because he's so obviously an asshole. And although he may demand assistance from others, he doesn't want to learn anything; he already knows everything.
People don't dislike Brüno because he's gay, but because he's abrasively unpleasant. If anything, his flamboyance makes him more tolerable. At least it's amusing and takes some of the edge off his bullying personality. And that's just it: Few, if any, of his "victims" have immediately homophobic reactions to him. He's such a garish cartoon of the mincing queen that he peremptorily disarms overt homophobia. Who has a chance to feel threatened or appalled by this fellow's sexuality while you're under full-scale assault from his ego at every turn? When he drops his pants to seduce Ron Paul, the 73-year-old politician is quite understandably offended. And when Paul describes Brüno as "queer" it's not an epithet, just an accurate but inadequate description. It's also not particularly funny, though Brüno's awkward, preposterous seduction techniques are good for a few laughs.
But is Brüno really, as Gleiberman suggests, "holding up a fun-house mirror to our hidden prejudices" with his relentlessly over-the-top gags about blow jobs and anal penetration -- activities, it should be mentioned, that many heterosexual couples have been known to enjoy, too? (BTW, Oscar Wilde was reportedly not keen on buggery of any kind.) When Brüno raises the subject of "anal bleaching" with business associates or total strangers, isn't this just old-fashioned shock humor based on inappropriate behavior, injecting vulgarity into relatively formal social situations -- like Borat bringing a bag of poop to the dinner table during his etiquette lesson? Nobody's implying that Brüno is morally wrong to want his heiny to look as pretty as possible (it's merely the flipside of a bikini wax), just that they don't need to hear the details. He might just as well be talking about cosmetic hemorrhoid surgery (I'm sure there is such a thing in Brüno's world) or an intestinal polyp removal done in preparation for a colonoscopic fashion shoot.
Gleiberman notes that the embarrassed reaction of the psychic isn't particularly amusing, and I didn't find it so, either. What made me laugh were the obscenely imaginative details Brüno comes up with while pantomiming fellatio on an invisible ghost.
for all the pleasure of that laughter, which is undeniable, there's a residue to "Brüno" that can leave you feeling dirty and unsure of yourself. Only the most PC audience could read "Borat" as an attack on Kazakh culture or heritage; most of the jabs were clearly against the xenophobic Americans the character encountered in Cohen's patented mockumentary ambush style.
But Bruno, perhaps because Cohen plays him so brilliantly, vividly personifies some of the most hateful stereotypes of homosexual manners and lifestyles in a way that Cohen, his co-writers and director Larry Charles don't have quite control of. Yes, the homophobic bigotry of a variety of those whom Bruno encounters is exposed nakedly and often humorously; but at the same time the film plainly asks the audience to laugh at Bruno's sexual tastes and flamboyant air. You could be amused by or with Ali G or Borat and be on firm footing, morally speaking; Bruno, whether by its creators' choices or lapses, affords you no such steady ground.
I'm honestly trying to remember an example of "homophobic bigotry" that was "exposed" in "Brüno," and nothing's coming to mind. Nor do I envision "Borat" -- whose main character is a parody of the nationalistic xenophobe ("Down with Uzbekistan!") -- as a scathing exposé of American parochialism, though Borat himself certainly provided a satirical caricature of that mindset. Yes, the movie encourages the audience to laugh at Brüno's outrageous speech and mannerisms... but does that make it homophobic? Seems to me that misses the point entirely. It reminds me of the great moment -- a throwaway, but one of the funniest in the film -- when Brüno disingenously praises the wonderful "African-Americans" he met during a stopover in Ghana to adopt a baby. No, a black woman corrects him, they were Africans. Uh-uh, Brüno says -- it's racist to call them that! If Brüno had been any less of a cartoon, if he had displayed any guilt or insecurities about his own sexuality, or if the movie had asked us to sympathize with him because he's gay, the movie could have been intolerably dishonest from a moral standpoint. As it is, Brüno is loud, he's proud, and he's absolutely insufferable. Accept (or, at least, acknowledge) him for who he is and get over it. Brüno is "good for the gays" because he is who he is, and he doesn't have to be a "sympathetic character" just because we still live in a world rife with homophobia. This particular movie doesn't "expose" anything that isn't already obvious, but I'm not convinced it's trying to.
Does "Brüno" "feel superior" to its subjects, as some reviewers have charged? Well, Brüno sure as hell does, but that's not the same thing. By its nature, "Brüno" relies less on the candid-camera reactions of its title character's unwitting "victims" than "Da Ali G Show" or "Borat" (which, despite some misrepresentations, wasn't all about ambush-comedy, either). Few of the set-pieces in "Brüno" (the fashion show crash, the Paula Abdul interview, the fake Richard Bey talk show, the interviews with stage parents, the hunting/camping trip, the Straight Dave wrestling match) couldn't have been just as funny if they were entirely scripted or improvised like a Christopher Guest movie (or Brüno's stunt with Eminem at the MTV Movie Awards). None of them require that people on camera be unaware that the egregiously fictitious Brüno is a fraudulent character -- and, as in "Borat," you can't always detect the extent of the other performers' complicity in the scene. Some of the intended "ambushees" get the joke anyway -- notably, for example, a large bald black man in the Bey audience who rocks with laughter at the ridiculous antics unfolding around him. Others who resist Brüno's sexual advances aren't necessarily revealing any anti-gay prejudices, they're just not comfortable with his inappropriate boundary-breaching. Imagine if Brüno were a straight man punking women. Some of what he does would be considered sexual harassment or even borderline assault.
(Brüno's attempts to bond with redneck hunting buddies through "Sex and the City" references 'round the campfire reminded me of the opening of "Reservoir Dogs," in which Mr. Brown offers an explication of a Madonna song to a bunch of tough-guy bank robbers. I was not surprised that one of the unhappy campers got really, really mad at Brüno for repeatedly waking him during the night and trying to climb into his tent naked. I was more surprised back in 1992 that Messrs. White, Orange, Blonde and Pink didn't pop a cap in Mr. Brown for all that obsessive blather about another piece of gay iconography.)
Much talk has centered on the alleged homophobia of the TV talk show audience and the wrestling crowd in the movie's two biggest set-pieces. But who's being naive here? Does anybody really take the spectators' cheering, booing, screaming, head-shaking, finger-wagging behavior at face value? Do you think Springer audiences and WWE wrestling fans don't understand the participatory nature of these events, and what their role is supposed to be? Of course they do. They're fully aware of the dual nature of the proceedings -- that they are both "real" and "fake" at the same time -- and that the onstage conflicts provide a framework for improvised performances not unlike the comedy you'd see at The Groundlings or Second City. Above all, the audiences know what's expected of them -- when to boo, when to cheer, when to express arena-sized outrage like fans at any sporting event.
These crowds have been primed to rise to the occasion. So of course they express all kinds of shock, right on cue, when Brüno says he traded his iPod for a baby; or when Brüno appears in the preposterous guise of a white-trash wrestler called "Straight Dave," who professes to be bullish on heterosexuality and then starts making out with his opponent. What would you expect? I don't believe for a moment that the movie intends to rip the lid off the festering homophobia of heartland America. (Think about it: How could either of these staged performances be said to do that?) It's just a matter of creating comedy by overturning expectations.
The talk show audience is primed for a show about a nice gay man who adopts a poor kid from Africa and brings him to America for a better life -- then finds out the "dad" is despicable in every way -- none of them having specifically to do with his homosexuality, though his unapologetic gayness may amp up their outrage. The wrestling crowd cheers the main attraction's schtick, which is his macho heterosexuality (how many wrestlers since Gorgeous George have likewise played up their effeminacy?). He's built up as the face, and then feels the expected heel heat when the kind of wrestling he provides is more suited to a gay sex show than a WWE-style event.
Basically, I think Brüno is a variation on the character of the heel in wrestling. Though not explicitly a "villain," he has virtually no redeeming or appealing characteristics (all he wants is celebrity) apart from his outlandishness. As Wikipedia describes heel characters, they "are often portrayed as behaving in an immoral manner, breaking rules or otherwise taking advantage of their opponents outside the bounds of the rules of the match. Others do not (or rarely) break rules, but exhibit unlikeable personality traits."
Brüno, you heel. You're a naughty, naughty boy. But still fabulous.
ADDENDUM: A little sample of the Richard Bey talk show scene. Notice how the audience overacts for the camera (they know how to get on TV!) and how the complicit Bey helps to set up Brüno's "shocking" one-liners:
And now... Babs reviews "Brüno" on "The View" and says it will turn you homophobic. This has got to go on the DVD. I lost count of the number of things she saw that aren't in the movie, but her best clueless line is: "I don't like making fun of little people." By which she means, you know, non-celebrities. Babs IS Brüno!
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