Sunday, July 12, 2009

Why all the Brüno-phobia from the critics?

This weekend I checked out Sacha Baron Cohen's latest provocation, Brüno (above), with some trepidation. Would it, I wondered - as some sensitive gay groups had claimed - inflame homophobia rather than satirize it?

Well, maybe; but first I have to admit I laughed my gay ass off at Brüno, which, it turns out, is far funnier than Borat. But it is also much edgier and nastier, and perversely multivalent. Indeed, from the start Cohen really works that R rating (the original cut was, of course, NC-17) - he opens with a montage of anal antics (involving champagne bottles and fire extinguishers) that's pretty much designed to clear the room, and even after that there are talking penises and the occasional anal "bleaching" to squirm through.

Still, the (young, straight) crowd I saw the movie with seemed to take this very much in stride, and actually maintained a kind of dazed sympathy with the title character's many travails. The general response to the appearance of a dildo or Cohen in his birthday suit was a murmur of "Oh, nooooo!," akin to the gasp that occurs at the top of a roller coaster, followed by gleeful screams. But then this is the "2 Girls 1 Cup" generation we're talking about; their reaction to the sight of Brüno pouring Cristal from the sphincter of his "pygmy lover," for instance, was merely gasping, happy, laughter. And they seemed to understand the movie as a parody of not only homophobia but also the "extreme" edge of gay life - which is exactly what it is. There are, I'm afraid, gay men who derive pleasure from pushing very large objects up their lower digestive tracts, and I guess I think it's okay if straight people think that's ridiculous and worthy of derision.

Indeed, if anything, I wish Brüno had parodied the gay ghetto more; it was interesting to ponder, for instance, that gay anal acrobatics were given a lot of screen time, but gay drug use was barely mentioned. Instead, the movie offers many a telling snapshot of the ongoing car-crash between our gay and celebrity subcultures (the associated GQ spread, at left). For even more than he wants an anal orgasm, Brüno wants fame, and he pursues it with an unapologetically crass stupidity that is, indeed, somehow endearing in its infantility: he wants to be famous now, for no reason, and can't we understand that's simply fabulous? Well of course we can, because so many of us feel exactly the same way!

This would be reason enough to see the movie - indeed, the shot of fame-whore Brüno dazzled by closeted stars John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kevin Spacey all at the same time is probably alone worth the price of admission. (And that's not even counting the stage mothers willing to starve their babies, the deliriously sick "Abort or Not?" talk show, or the bizarre interview with a dazed Paula Abdul; alas, we have to do without, for now, a notorious encounter with LaToya Jackson that was cut upon Michael Jackson's death.) But what hauls Brüno toward greatness, and beyond the shenanigans of "outrageous" shows like South Park, are two sequences that channel American bigotry with more force than anything in Borat, and probably with more force than we've seen in any American movie in years. The first of these occurs on a staged, Jerry-Springer-like TV show, in which Borat parades his African "gayby" - which he claims he traded for an i-phone - before a scandalized African-American audience. The satire here spins fast enough to give you whiplash as Brüno's own vapid brand of Eurotrash racism collides with black homophobia. It's a tour de force of competing victimization and bigoted outrage, with the kind of edge that network television (or even cable) can only dream of.

But this is nothing next to the film's finale - a staged anti-gay wrestling smackdown in which the clueless crowd is all but howling for gay blood. Actually, forget the "all but" - these cracker retards are howling for gay blood, indeed so hungry for it they're jumping up and down. But when the promised slugfest turns into a make-out session instead, the crowd really goes wild - so ferociously wild, in fact, that if barbed wire weren't separating Cohen from his audience, he probably wouldn't be alive today.

It was at such moments that I had to admire Cohen's balls; he certainly has the biggest in the business (although no, we don't actually get to see them). If only the nation's reviewers sported similarly-sized pairs! The critical response to Brüno has been dispiritingly timid, and only re-inforced for me my general impression that, well, most print critics are whores. Rotten Tomatoes informs us that only half the nation's reviewers found the film "fresh" - and most offer the dopey claim that while Borat hilariously unearthed and satirized bigotry, Brüno is just too icky and "confrontational." (Uh - ponder that one for a moment - this time the bigotry was too openly confronted!) Even the Globe's Wesley Morris tut-tutted over the film (he called it "desperate") - and isn't Morris gay? No, I don't know for sure, but he certainly seems gay, or at least so metro-sexual that the difference hardly matters. (Of course he's black, too - perhaps that's why he was non-plussed by the talk show sequence, and found the screaming anti-gay reaction at the finale "not entirely unfair"!)

Now don't get me wrong - Brüno is hardly a masterpiece; indeed, like its predecessor, it's just a ragged assemblage of raunchy skits. And occasionally - as when Cohen keeps taunting a pack of dumb, but harmless, redneck hunters - we feel some sympathy with his targets. But usually we don't, and the movie's wildest moments - the crazy, naked dominatrix with the whip comes to mind - leave Borat in the dust; certainly the audience I saw the film with laughed harder and longer than any audience I've seen in years (including the crowds at the entire Judd Apatow oeuvre).

To be honest, what's striking about many of the MSM reviews is their dodgy sympathy with homophobia - they feel Cohen has just pushed the audience too far (the poor dears). All I can say is that my experience at the multiplex seemed to undercut that perception - although national numbers reveal that after a huge opening night, the movie's box office fell, even though it hung onto the #1 position for the weekend. So maybe the nation's critics know their masters better than I do. Or maybe Cohen simply pushed many reviewers too far, be they closeted or just plain crotchety. The rather toothless "controversy" of Borat is much more up their, um, alley.

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