A few weeks back, I found myself in the middle of one of those endless debates about homosexuality that never leads anywhere. Despite my indifference towards the subject, I grew irritated towards my friends’ unbending, hostile stance towards homosexuals.
Their actual position and beliefs had nothing to do with it; it’s their business after all. The reason for my exasperation was their refusal to listen to the voice of reason, to acknowledge the mere possibility that they could be wrong.
Wanting to provoke a strong reaction from them, I erroneously decided to take the whole lot and watch Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest “Brüno, a shock satire that goes to unforeseeable extremes to confront audiences with their own prejudices.
Their strange, if not entirely unpredictable, response, was a far cry from what Baron Cohen must have projected. For all its inventiveness and brazenness, “Brüno is a difficult film that reinforces gay stereotypes rather than abolishes them. The film’s biggest sin though is the unabashed smugness whose shadow Baron Cohen and his director, Larry Charles, fail to mask.
Charles, director of Baron Cohen’s breakout 2006 docu-prank “Borat, adopts the same loose structural design of the first film with little modification. Cohen’s Brüno is a tall, blonde Austrian gay fashionista who hosts “the top-rated late-night fashion show in any German-speaking country, except Germany.
At the beginning of the film, Baron Cohen takes a few jabs at the fashion industry with little effect. In one of the best side gags, Brüno, dressed in a Velcro suit for a fashion show he’s covering, involuntary attaches himself to every piece of garment that stands in the way and lands in the catwalk.
With his career destroyed in Austria, he decides to head to Los Angeles to become “the biggest Austrian celebrity since Hitler. And the real insanity begins.
Part of the film targets celebrity/media culture. In one part, Brüno interviews Paula Abdul in an unfurnished house and convinces her to sit on Mexican workers as she talks about humanitarian work. “You give love to other people and you get love back in spades, she mechanically speaks as the Mexican man lying underneath her is seen gawking in pain.
In another, he shows a TV pilot of a program called “Keep it or Abort It to a stunned focus group.
The best, and arguably most shocking and distressing, part of the film sees Brüno interviewing overeager American parents who will do anything to get their children on TV, and that includes forcing them to lose weight in a week, having them banded on a cross and dress as concentration camps Nazis pushing other babies in barrels into gas ovens.
The main part of the film concentrates, in theory, on divulging America’s anti-gay bigotry, one of the “last prejudices that remains widely acceptable as Baron Cohen put it in a 2007 interview.
In his holy crusade to prod homophobia, Baron Cohen attempts to bring peace in the Middle East by strolling down the streets of Jerusalem dressed as a gay Orthodox Jew, appears on daytime Dallas TV in front of a disgruntled African-American audience with a black baby (sporting a shirt that reads “Gayby ) he swapped for an i-Pod; joins the army and meets up with a minister who cures homosexuality.
An early sequence of the film features Brüno engaging in outrageous sex acts with the assistance of a fire extinguisher, a Champaign bottle and an exercise machine. The sequence, and pretty much the whole movie, seems to have a dual purpose: to bombard mainstream viewers with graphic homosexual images and to normalize gayness; to prove that viewers are fundamentally uneasy with sex and inappropriateness in general and not gay sex in particular.
The impression that ultimately comes across is quite different.
Although my friends were rolling on the floor with laughter, there was a palpable look of disgust on their faces; their eyes were screaming “looking at how funny gay sex is. Baron Cohen draws a caricature portrait of gay men, sketched via carefully articulated behavior, mannerisms and an overtly displayed sexuality that, I hate to admit, many people in Egypt and the Arab world believe to be true.
Despite his racism and chauvinism, Borat emerged as a childish, wide-eyed chap whose foremost transgression was his ignorance. Brüno is an altogether different creature. Unlike Borat, Brüno is essentially a bully, an unsympathetic, sex-craving phony who goes around terrorizing as many helpless victims as possible.
The first part of the film is undeniably hilarious, and like most people, there were several intervals – including, most notably, a talking phallus and a swingers’ party – that left me with my mouth wide open.
By the second part of the film, when Brüno’s bullying antics started to wear thin, I stopped laughing. The aura of the left-wing self-righteousness permeating each prank eventually gets the better of Baron Cohen.
Part of Baron Cohen and Charles’s failure is the easy targets they’ve chosen to mock. Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is one. Baron Cohen dupes him into a fake interview, leads him into a hotel room and starts undressing. Naturally, Paul storms out of the room and calls Brüno a queer. Are Paul’s remarks excusable? No, they’re not, but they’re understandable given the extremeness of the situation.
Once more, Charles takes aim at naive mid-westerns, the current butt-joke of Hollywood. This time though, there’s nothing much to laugh it with some characters, like the minister, manage to firmly hold their ground. Baron Cohen forces most of his subjects to act like bigots. Whether their prejudices are genuine or not is difficult to determine.
Baron Cohen is essentially a moralist, bearing slight traits of Michael Haneke, the king of all modern moralists, without the subtlety, intelligence or vigor. Assuming the role of a moralist is no easy feat; you either succeed or you don’t. There’s no middle ground in there, and once arrogance slips into your system, the message you attempt to convey comes across as blunt and self-important.
Cohen, one of the most talented comedians in the world today, has become the kind of celebrity he made a career out of lampooning. The sense of superiority, entitlement even, has trampled him from delivering what could’ve possibly been a biting, insightful look at prejudice.
What Baron Cohen and Charles fail, and perhaps refuse, to understand is the complex nature of gay prejudices. People like Paul are a product of a different culture with a different morality and principles. Same thing goes with the Middle East and a country like ours. Baron Cohen doesn’t recognize this and in the process, his film is rendered as pretty much nothing more than shallow piece of entertainment.
I wonder now what if Brüno had decided to stop in Egypt. How would people respond to his shenanigans and what kind of society would we appear to be? Homosexuality remains one of the major taboos in this country.
Like any society driven largely by religion, anti-gay behavior is widely acceptable, encouraged even in many occasions. But religion is not the sole reason behind our prejudices. Egypt is a self-religious country that has seldom admitted its intolerance towards the other. Like Baron Cohen, we’re blinded by our pride. That’s why I can’t imagine the existence of an Egyptian Brüno. We’re still many years behind fully owning up to our prejudices, not even via a superficial dummy like him.