Universal Home Entertainment,

Larry Charles

Sacha Baron Cohen,
Anthony Hines

Sacha Baron Cohen,
Gustaf Hammarsten
Clifford Banagale,
Bono, Sting,
Elton John,
Paula Abdul,
Ron Paul,
Domiziano Arcangeli,
Richard Bey,
Brittny Gastineau

Rated R, 82 minutes

The Austrian Queen
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, December 2009

What's a politically correct queer to do? On the one hand, Sacha Baron Cohen's 2009 Bruno is a one-joke movie of very questionable taste starring an annoying stereotype. On the other hand, I almost lost bladder control a few times from laughing so hard.

Unless you somehow missed the media saturation, you already know that Bruno is flamboyantly, outrageously, in-your-face Euro-gay. His hair is peroxide blonde, his body is waxed, his wardrobe a hybrid of Boy George and Versace. Cohen originally created his Bruno persona on Da Ali G Show, first aired on Britain's edgy Channel 4 (which also brought us My Beautiful Laundrette and the original Queer As Folk) and then on HBO. Cohen's characters, which also include Borat, were unorthodox (to say the least) journalists who conducted asinine, and often offensive, interviews with unsuspecting guests. His marks were celebrities and public figures whom he often publicly embarrassed with his leading questions. Cohen's sketches are often vulgar but come with an agenda that exposes institutionalized bigotry and hypocrisy. Borat, for example, was an anti-Semite from Kazakhstan - put him in a room with a few white supremacists and who needs a laugh track? Reality can sometimes be blurred because the audience isn't always sure when the participants are in on the joke and when the wool is really being pulled over their eyes.

As the film begins, Bruno claims to be an "uber-influential" fashionista in Austria. His show, Funkyzeit Mit Bruno is a cross between Sprockets and Project Runway. After he single-handedly destroys a fashion show by wearing a velcro jumpsuit that sticks to everything (curtains, wardrobe racks, models), he becomes a pariah in Austria. He heads to America with his put-upon assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten). Bruno is so full of himself that he never remembers the love-struck Lutz's name. He is convinced that he is already a household name in The States and that he will soon be the most famous star in America.

The rest of the movie is basically a series of sketches strung together, most of them designed to induce extreme discomfort from homophobes when confronted with the Austrian uber-fag. It's easy to get laughs when you throw Bruno into a campfire scene with a group of redneck hunters and then have him talk about Sex In The City. Hilarity is certain when an almost naked Bruno and Lutz, handcuffed and harnessed together, stumble through a protest by the Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church (complete with their "God Hates Fags" signs). Some of this is very funny, some of it is really stupid, some of it is offensive. And some of it, unintentionally, probably reinforces the very stereotypes it aims to skewer.
Watching Bruno is a little like watching South Park. Sometimes the satire is so dead-on and sometimes you are unable to wrap your brain around the concept that an adult actually wrote this. Other times you're still laughing in spite of yourself just from the sheer shock value. How else can one react when Bruno is interviewing Paula Abdul, while sitting on Mexican gardeners because the furniture hasn't arrived, and sushi is served on the torso of an overweight naked man? Or when he speaks to his agent on the telephone while having his anus bleached. Sometimes I rolled my eyes. Other times I lost it completely, like when his pilot, A-List Celebrity Max-Out With Bruno, was shown to a very conservative sample audience. Think back to the reaction of Mel Brooks' audience watching Springtime For Hitler as the test group is treated to a segment in which a Z-list celebrity's sonogram is called a "white trash fetus," and then to the sight of Bruno lewdly dancing and rubbing his package against the camera lens. The dance number ends with a twirling penis. One thing I have to say about Cohen is that he isn't afraid to push envelopes.
Besides attacking homophobia, Bruno's other main target is celebrity culture. Bruno adopts an African baby (because Madonna and Brangelina have done it) and gives him a traditional African name: OJ. He records a sappy all-star "We Are The World" - styled peace and brotherhood song with the likes of Bono, Sting, Snoop Dogg and Elton John. Bruno adopts a big cause (George Clooney already has Darfur) and attempts to broker peace between Israel and Palestine - except that he keeps confusing Hamas with hummis. When he wonders why he still isn't famous, he decides to fix it by becoming a straight macho film star "like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey." No comment.
There are sight gags in this movie that will be etched into your brain forever. Sometimes the film actually slows down long enough for the audience to catch its breath and a few of these subtler, quieter moments are funnier than the big set pieces. There is a lot of comic German talk; I laughed when he named several celebrities hanging on his agent's wall: Stevie Wunderbar, Wilhelm Schmidt (Will Smith) and the Fuerher (Mel Gibson). But most of the jokes are over the top, like when he's trying to make a sex tape with Presidential hopeful, Ron Paul (this scene wasn't staged with Paul's knowledge). Or trying to get kidnapped by terrorists and informing their leader that his hair is sun damaged. Or telling a Southern ex-gay therapist that he has "blow job lips."
There is no question that Cohen is a master at disappearing into his creation and he is a very funny man. One crucial difference, between Bruno and the screaming queens that we hated from the 70s, is that Bruno is not a de-sexed nellie. He's even a top. Bruno is also confident in his sexuality and not a self loathing queer. His decision to go straight later is fueled by his obsession with becoming an accepted celebrity at the cost of his identity. But the trouble with Bruno, however, is that the character is so annoying and full of himself that it is impossible to ever like him. Unlike, say, Christopher Guest's brilliantly lovable Corky St. Clair in Waiting For Guffmann, you are laughing at Bruno and not with him.
Attitudes have changed a lot since I grew up during the 70s but do we want straight red state America to see this? Presumably the humor is broad enough, and so over the top, that no one could possibly think that Bruno represents all gay men. Bruno makes the homophobes who still cling to the dated stereotype look like fools and hip audiences are laughing at them. It is obvious that Cohen gets the joke himself, but it has been my experience that some people just don't understand satire and there are enough over-the-top shenanigans on screen that will undoubtedly feed into ingrained stereotypes. Do I think Bruno is dangerous? No, but anything can be dangerous in the wrong hands; look at how Charles Manson interpreted the lyrics on The Beatles' White Album.
I could climb up on a soapbox but I would be lying if I said that I didn't laugh hysterically at a lot of Bruno. Even so, I was disturbed by the climax. Bruno, in his efforts to become straight, is now hosting Straight Dave's Man Slammin' Max-Out, a homophobically fueled wrestling show. Reportedly, the audience of extras hired for this scene was told they had tickets to an actual T&A wrestling show and their reactions were unscripted. When Bruno and another man's grappling in the wrestling cage turns into a kiss and then hot man on man sex, the audience goes berserk. The sight of an angry mob throwing cups, bottles, food and even chairs into the cage is actually quite chilling. Satire or not, this scene walks a tightrope over a precipice. Dangerous? Maybe. Scary? Yes.

This is where I have problems with Bruno. As a gay man, I get the joke when Bruno, as Straight Dave, goads a drunken mob to chant "My Asshole Is Made For Shitting." This is a time-tested rant often invoked by homophobes. The rectum has been repeatedly linked with AIDS and death by conservatives and so, to me, Cohen's satire is obvious and dead-on. My fear is that an audience of bigots will just find the chant funny in itself and miss the intended context. If the audience reaction in this scene is authentic outrage, then these people would have ripped the two actors to shreds if they hadn't been inside that wrestling cage.

It's a sobering thought that Cohen's life might have actually been in danger during these stunts. Also consider the scenes where he is sashaying through the streets in the Middle East. I'm sure there were bodyguards off camera but I have to profess some admiration; this man has balls. But, again, will the targets of Cohen's satire get the joke?

One question that I have to ask is: how did this film get an R rating and not the dreaded NC-17? (The gay sex in Bruno is more explicit than Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, five years earlier, and guess which one got the NC-17?) I suppose, in some ways, we can look at this as the MPAA growing up and getting hip but somehow I don't think so. As shown in Kirby Dick's excellent documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the big studios are often given a pass and if this had been a low-budget indie instead, there is no way the film would have gotten away with an R. Isn't it odd how nudity and sex this explicit only escapes the usual MPAA slap on the wrists when it's played for laughs?

So, did I like Bruno? Well, I didn't love it but I certainly didn't hate it. Deep down the activist in me wants to abhor Bruno but I can't. This is a truly subversive film that is not cut from the same mold as the latest Adam Sandler comedy. The film makes a point and I hope that my fears are ungrounded and that everyone who sees it gets the joke. But, Mr. Cohen, please do us all a favor and make the star of your next film not gay, okay?


Sacha Baron Cohen also appears in:
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street