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.