Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA, 2009. Universal Pictures, Media Rights Capital, Everyman Pictures, Four by Two Films. Story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, Jeff Schaffer, based on a character created by Sacha Baron Cohen. Cinematography by Anthony Hardwick, Wolfgang Held. Produced by Sacha Baron Cohen, Monica Levinson, Dan Mazer, Jay Roach. Music by Erran Baron Cohen. Production Design by Dan Butts, Denise Hudson, David Saenz de Maturana. Costume Design by Jason Alper. Film Editing by Jon Corn, Scott M. Davids, Eric Kissack, James Thomas.
Brüno is a flamboyantly gay Austrian television host who considers himself his country’s most important citizen. He is devastated when he is fired from Funkyzeit, the television show he hosts, because of a Velcro accident during a (real) fashion show (my favourite of all the stunts and, sadly, at the beginning of the film). Not one to be put down, Brüno travels to Los Angeles where he decides he will become famous no matter what, attempting to create a sex tape (with presidential candidate Ron Paul, who is not at all amused), trying to become a celebrity interviewer (by having Paula Abdul sit on his Mexican employees as human furniture) and putting together a raucously dirty talk show for a bewildered focus group before he stumbles upon a deep realization: celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta are straight (ha!) so he should be too.
This takes him to the deep south, where his deliciously fey personality is integrated with Alabama wildlife hunters and subjected to the concern of an “ex-gaying” pastor in an effort to make himself someone the world wants to celebrate.
Baron Cohen’s sense of daring (which is almost at a level of insanity) and commitment to taking his character as far as he can (including nearly getting lynched by Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem) is highly admirable, but the film’s results are more than mixed. Some might find Brüno’s character an offensive stereotype, I personally think he’s quite fun: he’s fantastically, unapologetically queer, resilient to criticism and unwavering from his (admittedly superficial) goals despite the odds.
Unfortunately, Cohen undercuts these great qualities by always having him perform amateurish pranks that go nowhere, like miming giving oral sex to the deceased member of Milli Vanilli in front of a nonplussed California psychic who has probably seen way weirder things, and who is most likely aware of the situation given that there’s a camera on him.
Criticism about the film being homophobic and promoting stereotypes of gays and lesbians are incorrect and stray from the purpose; Brüno’s creative sex acts with his midget Filipino boyfriend are ridiculous because they’re what homophobes think goes on behind all closed doors. A wrestling match where gay sex has the effect of setting off a bomb, a talk show where Brüno’s being a gay parent creates a firestorm of anger from the audience, and a sequence where he attends a swingers party full of very non-monogamous straight people are the film’s way of letting people know what those fighting for equal rights are up against: America is not accepting gays and lesbians, and is continuing to be hypocritical about it.
Where the film falters is in choosing easy targets, Brüno invades cultures that have already been painted as bigoted and uneducated by everyone else, and rather than giving them a real challenge to their beliefs he is constantly trying to embarrass his victims with references to his genitals. Some of the reactions he gets are pretty scary , but you’ll notice that in most cases the people he talks to do their best to be polite to him (it’s frightening that the martial arts instructor teaches Brüno the most vicious ways to react to a gay man touching him, but he’s also quite congenial about the fact that Brüno whips out giant dildos and starts throwing them in his face).
It might have been more interesting if Baron Cohen had been as bold with his subjects as he is with his antics, perhaps choosing a straight-laced Ivy League graduate whose liberalism was just for show and really making him squirm at the thought of having to be fondled by this loopy Barbie doll with the Schwarzenegger accent.
What the film does do correctly, however, is maintain the reality that Cohen is an exceptional performer whose fearlessness is sometimes cruel but also courageous, and while Borat‘s structure was more solid and its cultural commentary more widespread, Brüno does have his heart in the right place.