How Gay Can You Go, America?

Brüno is hilarious. But it doesn't tell us much about homophobia.

Brüno, the latest film from guerrilla provocateurs Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles, is an 88-minute exercise in outrage and offense. No scatological reference is left untouched, no bodily orifice is left unpenetrated. It's funny, though not quite as painfully hysterical as the duo's last film, Borat, and it does intermittently reveal flashes of obscene genius. And just as with their previous collaboration, Charles and Baron Cohen remain true believers in the power of vulgarity and absurdity to reveal a person's true character.

Where Borat pushed unsuspecting people into agreeing with the title character's undiluted provincial racism, Brüno seeks to expose latent homophobia by putting a new crop of unwitting participants up against the loudest, most abrasive gay stereotype in history. But funny as the movie is, the subdermal bigotry Cohen and Charles seem to be chasing barely surfaces, and then only when provoked. In Brüno, America faces down the gayest of the gay, and, for the most part, acquits itself rather well.

Like Borat, Brüno is an episodic travelogue that mixes scripted dialogue with unscripted scenes where the marks face off against Cohen's Brüno, a proudly flaming Austrian talk-show host and wannabe celebrity with a penchant for putting people in bizarre situations. But rather than homophobic vitriol, many of the movie's targets respond with surprising politesse, or at least entirely justified irritation.

Focus-group attendees asked to respond to Brüno's mocked-up talk show, which features, among other things, a talking penis and a celebrity baby segment called "Keep It or Abort It?", react with utterly unsurprising disgust. A southern martial-arts instructor gamely plays along as Brüno requests instruction on defending himself from homosexuals, and then proceeds to wield a battery of dildos against the instructor. A gang of hunters sits in grumpy silence around a campfire as Brüno amps up the sexually charged innuendo, only reacting forcefully when he tries to invade one their tents in the middle of the night. And a psychic remains surprisingly calm while Brüno performs what can only be described as air-fellatio on the ghost of the dead half of Milli Vanilli. Even the reprehensible "God Hates Fags" anti-gay protesters turn out to have no interest in harassing Brüno, despite the fact that he lurches through the middle of one of their demonstrations clad in skimpy leather while chained to his lover.

The closest thing we get to a gay-slur in the film is when Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) shouts "that guy's queerer than the blazes" as he storms away from a hotel-room interview after Brüno strips down to his shiny, purple underwear and tries to seduce the congressman. But even that sounds more like antiquated terminology than out-and-out bigotry, and given the circumstances, it's not exactly unreasonable to expect an outburst.

Still, not everyone comes out unscathed. During tryouts for a kiddie photo shoot, a group of straight-faced parents declare their happy willingness to submit their toddling offspring to medical experimentation, antiquated machinery, and liposuction, just as long as it ensures their kid the job. An evangelical "gay converter" who advises Brüno not to play the clarinet if it reminds him of his sexual proclivities exhibits a near-total lack of ironic knowingness. And after being led in a chant of "straight pride," a crowd of bloodthirsty ultimate fighting fans respond with angry shouts—and eventually thrown items (including a chair)—after Brüno hijacks their show with a gay make-out session.

Is it a crude mob outburst? Of course. But just as it's hardly surprising that self-proclaimed gay converters lack both sense and self-awareness, it's not much of a revelation that a frenzied crowd of ultimate fighting fans in Arkansas might be prone to violent outbursts. These segments are amusing, and satisfying in a way, but they don't prove much that wasn't already obvious.

So rather than expose latent homophobia, what the movie mostly succeeds in is setting Baron Cohen's crass-but-naive clownishness against a question of social etiquette: How does one respond when confronted with someone who is at once obnoxious, obscene, and painfully earnest? Generally, the answer is some combination of confusion, forced politeness, and, when pushed too far, a measure of anger and irritation.

The real humor in the film, then, comes not from the marks, but from Cohen's buffoonish antics, and his willingness to break taboos of culture and taste. As Borat proved, Cohen's commitment to probing the uncharted boundaries of comedic tastelessness is impressive: Only South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are any match for Cohen's abilities as a creative vulgarian.

None of this is to say that bigotry doesn't still exist, or that America is universally friendly to gays. Not only do a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage, but, according to Gallup polls, support has actually receded in the last two years. But most homophobia—the silent scorn of a coworker, the whispers of a small-town gossip, the indifference of a cloistered community—tends to express itself in ways too subtle for a movie like Brüno. Granted, when it comes to summertime jollies at the multiplex, that's probably the way it should be. Who needs subtlety when you've got dildo karate?

Peter Suderman is an associate editor of Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I am so ashamed to admit that I plan to see this movie.

  • ||

    Watching a guy get kicked in the balls is funny, too. But I don't watch movies of guys getting kicked in the balls repeatedly because it's fucking degrading. It's frankly sickening how much in the way of accolades Cohen and friends get for these adolescent excursions into testing the limits of people's patience and politeness.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Similarly to what Suderman's saying here, I thought in Borat that a few of the people he tried to embarrass acquitted themselves rather well. The southern politeness instructor in particular struck me as unflappable.

  • Ska||

    Meh, Bruno is the least funny of the 3 characters for me. I'll see it on HBO in 4 months.

  • ||

    The Bruno bits on Ali G had some amazing moments, but it was mostly with unapologetic racists/homophobes. Borat is a much better foil because he's a (non-European) foreigner and can get away with ridiculous things because people tiptoe around foreign cultural gaffes. Bruno's just a flamer, so I doubt it will be as usable.

    However, I will of course go see it. The naked wresting scene in Borat was one of the most brilliantly disturbing things I've seen in a long time. If he gives us another scene on that level, that'll make the whole thing worth it.

  • shrike||

    'Bruno' has a high bar to jump in 'Borat'.

    Borat was de Tocqueville all over again - a travelogue examining the modern democracy in the US. Borat encountered Bob Barr, Alabama GOP racist aristocrats, sexist frat boys, Arizona fundie nuts with real-life speaking-in-tongues GOP Congress-idiots, and abject Patriot Act rodeo depravity circa 2004. In short - the Bush idiocracy.

    How can you top that?

  • Wade||

    People will tend to hold back their irritation and anger when they know they are being recorded. Otherwise I'm sure they would have been more than happy to beat the crap out of this jerk.

  • ||

    This movie is exactly what Lonewacko was talking about.

    Be outrageous.
    Watch people respond.
    Put it on youtube.

  • ||

    "How can you top that?"

    An explicit 5-way lipstick lesbian sex movie?

  • Solanum||

    Hey shriek, the meds only work if you actually take them. You do know that, right?

  • shrike||

    That was a lucid and cogent post - Solanum.

    and I don't take any meds - I do sometimes take "fun" drugs I will admit.

  • Jesse Walker||

    The funniest Bruno bit on TV didn't have anything to do with homophobia.

    Start at 1:36.

  • $20ForHeadDontCum||

    Jaybird, I hope you know some lawyers looking for pro bono work. Cause you're going to be "bono-ed" after the defamation lawsuit.

  • ||

    The funniest Bruno bit on TV didn't have anything to do with homophobia.

    Was it Bruno who interviewed a fashion designer several times at a runway show, each time completely changing his "interpretation" of the work and having the designer agree with him every time? That was phenomenal.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Was it Bruno who interviewed a fashion designer several times at a runway show, each time completely changing his "interpretation" of the work and having the designer agree with him every time?

    That was Bruno too, and that was extremely funny too.

    If the new movie was like that, I'd be rushing out to see it the first weekend.

  • Warty||

    My favorite bit was the one where he was interviewing a bunch of drunk fratboys at spring break. At the end of the interview he said something like, "Yell if you love being on Austrian gay TV!" Much sputtering ensued.

  • ||

    "Watching a guy get kicked in the balls is funny, too. But I don't watch movies of guys getting kicked in the balls repeatedly because it's fucking degrading. It's frankly sickening how much in the way of accolades Cohen and friends get for these adolescent excursions into testing the limits of people's patience and politeness."

    Well said. I don't even like to see that kind of behavior in scripted shows. Not only that, but how is it that the movies never show somebody acting admirably?

  • Warty||

  • ||

    Here's what I want: a show where Tom Green plays a Sacha Baron Cohen-type character interviewing people who think they are being pranked, but in reality, he asks them serious questions.

    OK, that idea sucks. Sorry.

  • ||

    "The funniest Bruno bit on TV didn't have anything to do with homophobia."

    Precisely. Bruno was always at his funniest when lampooning the fashion industry. In fact, I seem to remember that most of the Bruno segments on the show had more to do with him exposing the hypocrisy of elitist clubs and fashion shows than homophobia.

  • ||

    Lamar,

    If you could make it work, it would be awesome.

    I'm fairly tired of the now fairly tired things Cohen comes up with.

  • ||

    SBC can do no wrong.

  • bobbyoshea||

    "But most homophobia-the silent scorn of a coworker, the whispers of a small-town gossip, the indifference of a cloistered community-tends to express itself in ways too subtle for a movie like Brüno."

    replace "homophobia" with "slutophobia". i feel that not enough attention is paid to the plight of the town slut.

  • hm||

    "Borat was de Tocqueville all over again - a travelogue examining the modern democracy in the US. ... Alabama GOP racist aristocrats, ... and abject Patriot Act rodeo depravity circa 2004. In short - the Bush idiocracy."

    You neglect to mention the feminist group he sits with - they're at least tied with the rodeo for "most angry reaction"; and they're really the only group outright patronizing towards him. And are you talking about the same Alabama "GOP Racists" who said that he (Borat) could become "quite a good american" over time (something along those lines)? After showing him how to use toilet paper? Yeah, what a bunch of assholes they were. The only thing Cohen's movies prove - is how absurdly polite Americans are.

  • shrike||

    hm--- yes I did forget that! LMAO...

    Thank you. Your recollection is damn good.


    I see you like Borat nearly as much or more than I did.

  • Medic001||

    He's funny but not 12$ for a ticket, 10$ for popcorn, 64 for a 8oz coke and 4$ for a snickers funny. I'll wait for my nextflix Xbox 360 download.

    I love that Dr Ron Paul says he's queerer than the blazes...hahahahahahha

  • B||

    Personally, I thought Borat was fucking retarded. Hahahahahaha, a guy shit in a bag. Wow, what insightful commentary on American society.

  • ||

    Hahahahahaha, a guy shit in a bag. Wow, what insightful commentary on American society.

    If I ever fail to laugh at a guy shitting in a bag, somebody should harvest my organs.

    I love that Dr Ron Paul says he's queerer than the blazes...

    Me, too. For some reason, I can't help but find it charming.

  • ||

    I like shrike!

  • ||

    Maybe for his next flick, he'll put burnt cork on his face and go around asking people for watermelon and fried chicken.

    Cohen is about as funny as a migraine.

    -jcr

  • ||

    Too bad the scenes in which someone with a modicum of self respect decked Cohen were left on the cutting room floor. There had to be plenty of those.

  • alan||

    The only movie I'm looking forward to seeing from him is Faces of Death: The Sascha Baron Cohen Edition.

    I don't have any particular animus towards SBC beyond the fact he is porking the best looking red head in the business, it just the fact that a ninety minute movie of SBC writhing in pain (I see an exploding gas tank and a flaming bike in his future) would be the most fucking hilarious thing since J G Ballard's 'The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy considered as a downhill motor race'.

    Seriously, what fan would settle for anything less?

  • alan||


    replace "homophobia" with "slutophobia". i feel that not enough attention is paid to the plight of the town slut.


    I consider myself a one man support group. It is my passion, and it is my calling.

  • Hacha Cha||

    I liked Borat and didn't think the way he treated Bob Barr was anything horrible. Barr thought that either he misundestood what Borat said or that he was just plain weird. based on Borat I HAD planned to see Bruno. until...
    after seeing the previews and looking up what happened when he interviewed Paul I decided not to go see it. the way Bruno treats Ron Paul is a pretty shitty way to treat a 73 year old man. also, I don't know any gays or bisexuals personally that take offense to the term queer. obviously Ron Paul is a defender of homosexuals due to his philosophy on personal and economic freedoms.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    Count me in as a big fan of Cohen, although I suppose I can see why he's polarizing. I plan to see Bruno at the first opportunity.

  • ||

    While not a criticism of this article, discussions about homosexuality are better served if there is acknowledgement and consideration of the entire spectrum of human sexuality. Homosexuals are not one dimensional. Confining them to the ghetto of homosexual marriage impoverishes and strips them of their full humanity. Opinion without context is a fruitless gesture; it is an autoerotic act.

  • jk||

    homo = same
    phobia = fear

    homo + phobia = fear of the same

    Yet it is used to mean fear of homosexuals.

    Unless it is to mean that those who fear homosexuals are themselves gay?

    Either way it is an abuse of the English language.

  • Pendulum||

    race = competition, often involving speed
    track = contained paved surface suitable for cars.

    And yet, sometimes "racetracks" are used for qualifying or even test-driving!

    I await your outrage.

  • ||

    It's frankly sickening how much in the way of accolades Cohen and friends get for these adolescent excursions into testing the limits of people's patience and politeness.

    I tried to make that point to several people during Borat's run; all I got were looks of puzzled incredulity. "It's funny," my friends said.

    It seemed to me that people (at least the people I know) quite willingly, and perhaps even unconsciously, dissociated Cohen's antics on the big screen from reality, and I suppose that's only natural. After all, most movies at the Regal Cinema are outright works of fiction; you're supposed to willingly suspend your disbelief and enjoy the fiction.

    Cohen's true brilliance is that he got so many unsuspecting rubes to do so much of his work for him. The dismal theater of humans who don't know or understand that they are being observed exposed something that started to feel like a failing of the entire human race.

    In short - the Bush idiocracy.

    Shrike, can you make a point about anything without involving your warped and juvenile RIGHT VS LEFT ALL THE FUCKING TIME view of the world?

  • shriek!||

    Lalala!
    The magical man of flint, thats me!
    Four lightnings leap from my palms
    Strike and return!

  • jk||

    Pendulum,
    My problem with the word homophobia is that I think it was intentionally created to mean two things.
    So by using it to mean fear of gays, but it literally meaning fear of the same, accusing someone of homophobia is saying they are afraid of their own inner gay person.
    Just like the attack on marriage is really an attack on the concept of gender.
    It appears that you are just trying to be an instigator and could care less about the fact that we use words to think and communicate, and by manipulating the meaning of words our thoughts can actually be manipulated.
    Perhaps you should reread 1984, and pay special attention to Newspeak.

  • ||

    I'm planning to see it just because of the preview scenes with the black baby: first, when he pulls the kid out of a cardboard box on the luggage carousel, and second, when he tells the black woman in the talkshow audience that he named the kid OJ.

  • ||

    "Borat" was a genuinely amusing ambush-mockumentary (even more amusing bits, ahem, on DVD). From what I'm hearing about "Bruno" SBC is getting a bit derivative, both stylistically as well as his choice of targets. Of course I'll see it, as it still promises to be funnier than the usual summer dreck, but SBC needs a new concept, not just a new character, for his next project.

  • ||

    'It doesn't tell us much about homophobia'? What movie did you see? I thought the cage match scene at the end was the most powerful statement against homophobia ever put on film. The crowd was ready to cheer with thunderous applause at the sight of two men beating each other senseless. But broke down into chaos and hysterics at the sight of two men kissing. There in that one scene, the ugliness of homophobia was cut open and laid bare for all to see.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets...in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it's literally a labyrinth, that's no joke

  • nike shox||

    is good

  • The Backroom Boutique||

    Actually supporters of gay people is not decreasing my friend it is increasing. And in Hollywood it is no longer trendy to be in the closet. Stepping out is now trendy.

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