So, succumbing to all the hype, I attended the premiere midnight showing of Brüno last night. Here are my reactions and reflections.
*WARNING: There are some general spoilers in this post about what happens in the movie.*
I’ll start by saying this: I liked it. In fact, I actually felt I left the theatre with a positive message. Brüno is filthy, offensive, and absurd, but it actually has a decent point to make.
If you walk into Brüno expecting some coherent, gripping plot, then you are a clueless hermit who has never heard of Sacha Baron Cohen. As in Borat, the character of Brüno is merely a device designed to create reactions. In a sense, it’s a very extreme form of candid camera. Some of the scenes, such as a sex montage that was surely inspired by Team America: World Police (with an inventive homage to Burn After Reading), are for the audience directly, whereas others are more to capture the reactions of the innocent passers-by in the camera’s view.
What is interesting is the way that Brüno is essentially the opposite of Borat. Borat represented “foreign,” and created many unique scenarios that exposed much of the xenophobia and racism Americans can express. Brüno actually represents an exaggerated archetype of the American dream: rich, glamorous, celebrity. This personification creates many opportunities to reveal sexism, racism, classism, and definitely quite a bit of homophobia and heterosexism. Many have expressed concern that Brüno’s sexual orientation represents a mockery of the gay community, but my reaction was that I did not actually perceive the character as playing gay the way we think of, say, Jack McFarland.
Let me be clear: Brüno is stereotypically gay. He’s got the effeminate posture, the revealing wardrobe, and the oversexed behavior and bitchy queen attitude that fill out the stereotype, but I felt it was so obviously over-the-top that it almost became irrelevant as I watched the movie. When I go back and watch Will & Grace, I often feel like Jack epitomizes the idea of “queerface” that Brüno has been accused of. Jack was a straight actor playing a gay man the way society saw gay men, and it was normalized. What the 90s saw as progress of gay inclusion, we can now look back on as gay manipulation. We cheered Jack’s flamboyance and weekly hook-ups while actually kind of hoping Will would start a family… but with Grace, not another successful mature gay man like Will. It’s almost kind of astonishing how heterocentric Will & Grace is in hindsight.
Brüno is different because the character makes no assumption of being normal. You expect to actually find gay men like Jack; you don’t expect to find gay men like Brüno. In my theatre audience, I heard a few “gay panic laughs,” nervous isolated reactions by men because suddenly something gay happened, like if Brüno seemed to be coming on to someone who was straight. But it’s clear the intent is usually not to laugh at Brüno because of his eccentricity, but to observe the reactions of the people who don’t realize he’s not real.
And the reactions are quite telling.
There are kind of two parts of the movie. The first chunk is mostly about making fun of the celebrity ideal. I was honestly delighted by how easily Brüno revealed “fame” for what it really often is: shallow and stupid. From the way Brüno exposes and creates controversy himself to the way he reveals what others will do for fame (including a great montage of sell-out stage parents), the movie’s message is clear: fame is overrated. Somehow, though, he also worked into the movie the fact that war in the middle east is stupid. Much like Tim Minchin suggests peace over not eating pigs, Brüno suggests peace through the eating of the healthy snack that is hummus.
The rest of the movie really is about sexual orientation and gender roles, and I thought it actually did an effective job of demonstrating just how ridiculous anti-gay and patriarchal views are in the United States. Brüno decides he can’t be famous if he’s gay (which alone is representative of the disadvantage and oppression the LGBT community does experience), and so goes on a quest to become straight. Along the way, he speaks to Christian ex-gay therapists (one of whom had awful things to say about women), he goes to boot camp and self-defense training, he goes hunting, he attends a swingers’ party, and then, in the movie’s denouement, he creates quite the controversy for an arena of wrestling fans. In each of these scenarios, people’s discomfort with same-sex relations—despite comfort with opposite-sex sexuality—becomes the true exposé. While many of the reactions are not quite as extreme as the viewer hopes for, they don’t have to be to get the point across.
One of the best examples of this is an encounter Brüno has with former Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul. While certainly not being a gay rights activist, Paul’s libertarianism was often lauded as progressive, particularly when he suggested he would support same-sex marriage. Unfortunately for Paul, he represents the perfect example of how talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk. When Brüno comes on to Paul, his reaction is offensive and intolerant. Though prompted by absurdity, I found the scene one of the most poignant in the movie: saying you support or tolerate gays or saying you have gay friends doesn’t mean you’re an ally. Paul’s reaction represents the invisible homophobia that persists in society. When Brüno knocks over a Westboro Baptist Church (“God Hates Fags”) picketer while trapped in leather bondage, you realize that it’s not the trivial, obvious Phelps clan that maintains oppression in our society, it’s the closet homophobes like Ron Paul.
Yes, Brüno intentionally tries to make you cringe in the graphic over-the-top ways first inspired by Jackass. There is plenty in the movie to find wholly offensive, and sometimes it’s so offensive, the audience laughs because people don’t know how else to respond. Surely, there is nothing funny about deciding whether Jamie Lynn Spears’s baby should be aborted, but what is funny is how shallow and pretentious the rich and famous can be. There is nothing funny about using Mexican workers as furniture, but the portrayal of how the rich literally sit upon the poor is profoundly symbolic. And there is nothing funny about an arena full of wrestling fans chanting “Straight Pride,” but it is remarkable to see how easy it is to get people to show their true colors.
Brüno‘s goal is to trigger people’s reactions—both on screen and in the audience—and the film succeeds. What astounds me, though, is how the movie actually makes you think. Brüno reminds us that we have to stop trying to measure up to the American ideal (white, rich, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal), and start trying to meausure up to a better human ideal.