August 2, 2009

Why "Bruno" Disappoints

I was really looking forward to Bruno. I thought what Sacha Baron Cohen did with Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was nothing short of revolutionary for the comedy film. I saw Borat with a colleague during the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. Our screening was early in the morning and we were savagely hungover from a way-too-late evening the night before. During TIFF, several bars have extended last calls, and we had shut down a few in a row. When we arrived at the screening, we were just minutes away form the curtain opening, and the only seats available were in the front row. Front row seats with your head thrown back so you can see the screen, viciously hung over, in a theatre filled with jaded press people is probably the worst way to see a crass, low-brow comedy, but that theatre literally erupted with laughter.

What I loved about that movie - beyond that it was simply hilarious - was the clever way that Cohen used Americans ignorance about the world outside their borders against them, and simply gave them enough rope to hang themselves. By playing a foreign character that seemed so keen to embrace everything that is "America," they immediately let their guards down and embraced him. No matter what offensive, outrageous thing he said, they either didn't react to it (cause everyone knows foreigners can be such savages!) or worse, they acknowledged it and behaved like their were around like minded people. Then he was free to start letting out the rope - like the scene with the frat boys on the RV - and let them hang themselves as they reveal their own racist and sexist beliefs. No question, many people were duped and made to look very bad in that film - but the trickery aside, he didn't put those words in their mouths. The lawsuits that resulted seemed to be a lot of people angry they got tricked. They should be angry that so many people saw how smallminded they were and how much ugliness they had inside them. The film really created a device for them to say the things they normally wouldn't, and many of them felt "safe" to do so because they were under the impression the "film" would be shown only in Kazakhstan, a place I suspect many of them had never even heard of.

I naturally assumed that Bruno would use this same "gimmick." It seemed like a fantastic idea, as homophobia still seems to be a widely accepted form of bigotry in North America.
Despite all the advances the gay rights movement has made in the last twenty years, you can still walk into any classroom in this country and hear one student call another "gay" without a teacher batting an eye. If you substituted the word "gay" for a racial slur, this wouldn't fly. Even in the media, the homosexual lifestyle is presented in very specific, stereotypical ways. Gay males in cinema are primarily the "fabulous" best friend to a plucky female who's not having much luck on the romantic front. To ensure that these males are not too gay, they are almost always not involved in a relationship themselves, because, afterall, we don't want to see the gay character, you know being gay. Other forms of media do little to hide their own personal agendas. Every year when the Gay Pride Parade happens here in Toronto, the local news stations cover it and without fail, they will show a group of men in leather gear, asses hanging out walking someone on a leash as if that is an actual representation of what the parade is about. They seem to go out of their way to find the image that will most upset a conservative viewer as if to say "you we're right! These people are deviants."

So it seemed to me, the timing was fantastic for Bruno. I though this film would really do a great job of showing these biases, this bigotry, and letting people see how truly stupid it all is. Unfortunately, it seems the filmmakers forgot what it was that made Borat work so well in the first place. While the character of Borat was obviously a gross exaggeration; he was presenting this character to people that would have no idea what a man from Kazakhstan would really be like, so it worked. The concept of the film wasn't to see how people would react to him, it was to see how people would react to the phoney belief system he presented as the way of life from where he was from. Women beneath animals in terms of the hierarchy of their society, Jews are evil, etc.

The problem with Bruno is Cohen creates a character that would be offensive to anybody, regardless of their opinons of homosexualty. His characterization is so over the top that it's not identiiable as real in anyway. Early on in the film there's a sex scene involving Cohen, a little person and a machine mounted with a dildo. This has nothing to do with the homosexual lifestyle; and worse then that, is simply not comical in any way. (It sounds much funnier then it plays, sadly.)

At no point in the film does Cohen create the kind of situations he so skillfully managed to find himself in in Borat. I was fully expecting a film that took a comedic - but revealing - look at what the average man on the street American really thought about homosexuality. With gay marriage such a hot button issue in the United States, and the bible belt still raging against gay rights, it certainly seemed like best thing to do with the character of Bruno. Instead, Cohen wants to look at things like celebriy worship (gee, what a taboo) and wastes a chunk of the film taking shots at Angelina Jolie and Madonna for adopting African children (the kind of satire one might expect in Scary Movie 5) While Borat had many cringe-worthy scenes where you're laughing at how stupid the people he's duping really are; this film had very little of that. There's a great scene where a woman is so desperate to book her child for a photoshoot, she completely disregards common sense, good taste, and the childs safety. And there's another scene where two vapid "PR Experts" illustrate that it takes very little brains to work in that industry. Both are very funny scenes. Neither have a thing to do with homosexuality. There's a sequence in the movie where Bruno has made a pilot for his North American television show, and he has a chance to show the program to a focus group, as well as a network executive. This is the perfect set-up for him to present something that will cause people to show their prejudice. A shot of two men kissing shouldn't be anymore offensive then a shot of a man and woman kissing, for example, so he could put people in a situation where they would have to defend or explain their own bigotry. Instead, the television show he previews for them shows slo-motion photography of his cock being whipped around in a circucular motion, over and over again. He goes so far in the other direction, that you're not revealing peoples bigotry, you're showing them something that any sane person would say is unacceptable for television and is simply offensive. Perhaps this would be excusable if it were at least funny. It's not.

So if the film isn't about lampooning the hypocritcal homophobes in the United States, and is actually taking the piss out of the star obsessed culture that celebrates Paris Hilton and the like - then what was the point of making the lead character gay? Just so you could take a few cheap shots? In the end, the film is really more about the same tired anti-gay jokes that the kid in the classroom who insults his friend by calling him "gay" would think is funny in the first place. What was the point?

Before the film was released, I was speaking with a gay friend about the movie, and he said he was looking forward to it, but his only concern was there would no doubt be a large chunk of the audience that wouldn't realize he was satirizing homophobic ideas, and instead would think the movie was simply bashing gays. Little did we know that the movie wouldn't really satirize it at all, and instead simply would play the gay character as an over-the-top sexual deviant with a crippling case of megalomania.

This movie is a big missed opportunity.