In Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen goes undercover as a lispy gay Austrian fashionista who hits on straight men (and watches them squeal) for sport. If you think his victims are uncomfortable, just wait. You'll probably feel even worse than they do, because Brüno is the most depressing movie of the year. Let's start at the end (SPOILER ALERT), with the most gut-wrenching scene of all, the movie's grand finale set in a wrestling match. Baron Cohen pretends to be a gay guy pretending to be a straight guy—are you still with me?—when he steps into the ring. He proudly declares his heterosexuality and the mostly white crowd of Arkansas sports dudes lets out a rah-rah. Then somebody in the audience (a plant, it turns out) calls Brüno a f-g. Baron Cohen gives us his best mock outrage, and summons the fool into the ring, under the pretense of wanting to whoop his butt. (In the stands, another collective cheer.) The two men circle each other, and they draw closer and closer, closer still, so close that they ... kiss. Ewwwwww. The happy crowd turns into an unruly mob: disgusted, they boo, hiss, yell, and hurl a chair into the wrestling ring. If they had been armed with guns instead of plastic beer cups, I'd bet the star of Da Ali G Show wouldn't have lived to see Brüno the Sequel.(Story continued below...)
Hopefully, the rest of us won't either. Brüno, like Baron Cohen's last comedy Borat, is the kind of movie that aims straight at the gut. Cohen almost dares you to stop for a Diet Coke at the concession stand, because you're likely to squirt soda right out of your nose laughing. But unlike Borat, who against all odds had a warm gooey center (He meets Pam Anderson! He gets hitched!), Brüno is just plain mean. You leave the roller-coaster ride with a bad aftertaste—kind of like bile—in the back of your mouth, and there really isn't a take-away message other than the fact that his victims are (a) hateful; (b) stupid; and (c) stupidly hateful. Is Baron Cohen defending gay people from the homophobia of conservative America? Or is he just encouraging homophobia: look at the scary gay guy who wants to come and get you!?! Or does Baron Cohen just like playing dress up in black leather shorts? The answer is all of the above, or maybe some of the above—I still can't decide. And in the process, nobody escapes from Brüno feeling better for having met him, including the audience. I actually felt sad on my walk home.
As a comedian, Baron Cohen is a modern day Andy Kaufman, and his targets include everybody except for a recently deceased pop star that has been in the news once or twice in the last few weeks. Baron Cohen originally went after Michael Jackson, too, but the scene—the very funny scene, where Brüno dupes La Toya into giving him the King of Pop's cell-phone number—was frantically snipped from the final cut of the movie. Why? Did the studio not want to bring us down? In that case, they should have also cut the scene where he auditions baby models for a photo shoot—and the overbearing stage moms enthusiastically agree to offer up their children, even if the job requirements include operating heavy machinery, dressing as Nazi guards, or losing 10 pounds (which is hard to do when that's a third of your weight). At one point, the fashionista asks his Mexican landscapers to bend over so that Paula Abdul—another one of his unwilling victims—has a place to sit during an interview. And he introduces us to a duo of giggly publicists in L.A. who are so blonde, they've never heard of Darfur.
But it's really the gay stuff that turns Brüno into the feel-bad movie of the year. Like when Brüno makes an appearance on a Carrollton, Texas, talk show and he tells the African-American crowd that he's adopted an African baby named O.J. Then he drops the bombshell: that he's a gay father—cue the deafening boos. What's the point? That black people don't like gay people? Or that O.J. isn't a good name for a baby? The gag where he corners Ron Paul in a hotel room under the pretense of an interview is golden, until Brüno pushes it too far by disrobing in front of him. The 73-year-old politician is so flustered he runs—OK, hobbles—muttering a gay slur under his breath. Does that make him a homophobe? No more than the trio of harmless country bumpkins that go camping with Brüno, only to find him trying to break into their tents in the middle of the night buck naked. Wouldn't you be weirded out too?
Watching Brüno I was reminded of the line from the Casey at the Bat: "There is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out." As Brüno strikes out again and again, you laugh less and less—and pity his victims more and more. Which is strange, because if the movie really is intended as a slam dunk against homophobia (as Universal has suggested in interviews), why are we rooting for the wrong team? Borat arrived at the end of the Bush administration, when we needed a stupid foreigner to show us how dumb we had really become as Americans. Brüno is a product of the Obama era, where we elected a black man to the highest office in the land on the same day that California voters rejected gay marriage. The president himself hasn't made good yet on his promise to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. He supports civil unions, but not husband and husband couples—as if separate meant equal.
Some members of the gay community have asked if anybody would accept a movie starring Baron Cohen in blackface. Probably not. So why is it appropriate for him to terrorize the nation as a gay stereotype? But that argument misses the problem, which is that his stereotype exists for no reason beyond cheap laughs. A generation of straight teen guys will hit the summer multiplex to hoot at Brüno, and they'll probably think of the lecherous sexual predator the next time they meet a gay person. That's not progress. Brüno is a comedy of errors.