With Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen holds up another mirror to American society, and if anything we’ve only gotten uglier since Borat.
Or maybe we’re just uglier when it comes to homosexuality. Borat, Cohen’s 2006 guerrilla comedy, exposed intolerance and prejudice of all kinds, but Bruno, in which Cohen masquerades as an unambiguously gay Austrian fashion celebrity, hones in on a very specific form of baseball-and-apple-pie hatred. If you can’t quite fathom why gay rights are so hard to come by in this supposed land of the free, watch this.
Cohen’s method – he’s sort of a politicized Andy Kaufman – is to adopt the guise of an outrageous character, enter the real world and coax unsuspecting bigots or regular old morons into revealing their own particular brand of outrageousness on camera (Larry Charles returns as Cohen’s director).
In Bruno, this results in an excruciatingly embarrassing sit-down interview with the Family Research Institute’s Paul Cameron. In trying to “convert” Bruno from homosexuality, Cameron reveals that his homophobia is nothing compared to his disgust for women.
Bruno is encouraged by such ambassadors of heterosexuality to immerse himself in manly activities, so at one point he attends a coed swingers’ party. The evening begins awkwardly and ends in startling violence, revealing that perversion pays no mind to sexual orientation.
Then there is the mullet-haired karate instructor – he must have been Danny McBride’s inspiration for The Foot Fist Way – who gleefully demonstrates how to defend against gay attackers. When Bruno comes at him armed with three sex toys, he doesn’t flinch.
Not all of the gambits work. Cohen verges on sexually assaulting Ron Paul in another interview, yet only manages to elicit a mild slur from the former presidential candidate. Other seemingly sure-fire scenarios – including the moment he stumbles into an anti-gay march wearing bondage gear – produce little gold. For whatever reason, Bruno’s batting average when it comes to on-camera stunts is below that of Borat.
There are other faults – the first third, which establishes Bruno’s hedonistic gay lifestyle, verges on homophobia itself – yet Bruno ultimately works as a shocking societal snapshot. During one terrifying sequence, in which Bruno and his male assistant square off in an Ultimate Fighting-style cage match and instead start making out, the outraged fans in the crowd literally begin foaming at the mouth. You can see the hatred literally dripping from their gnashing teeth. If the election of Barack Obama had you thinking America’s prejudicial barriers had been broken, Bruno offers a stark reality check. We still have a long, long way to go.