Brüno and His Discontents

By William McGuinness

Originally published on Advocate.com July 09 2009 11:00 PM ET

I first saw Brüno on television. He floated over an audience watching the MTV Movie Awards dressed in what I think really, really gay angels might wear for a night on the town in heaven. He waved, lost control, and landed upside-down on Eminem. What was squeezed into his jockstrap in flight rested on either side of the rapper's nose for a chaotic moment before the rapper tossed the inverted gay Austrian fashion authority from his face and stormed up the aisle in a huff while millions at home either laughed or crooked their heads, wondering if it was all real.

Cohen's latest ruse, like Borat , could land on July 10 in similar fashion. Cohen courts controversy in Brüno with expertly tweezed eyebrows, Zac Efron hair, and a rump fresh from the salon.

Brüno takes the summer movie theater, an air-conditioned escape where full-bladdered toe-steppers apologize repeatedly and the chatty are snubbed out like cigarettes, and flips it to a seated chaos.

The beverages that once passively passed from cup to straw to mouth fly out of their hosts with torrents of a screaming laughter so consuming and rare it leaves sore, tearing, and avoiding the eyes attached to the head where your mouthful of soda landed three rows in front. It's often that damn funny.

But gay audience members may switch from trying to catch their breath to holding it. Brüno is America's mirror, mirror on the wall reflecting the none-too-fair snap reactions of its people -- a rhinestone-studded pink elephant in a house divided over the movement to fully socialize a stigmatized population of people. It forces characters in the movie and people who watch it to confront their feelings on gay culture. How effective this is varies from scene to scene.

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The film's original title was "Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt." However, "for the Purpose of Making Homosexual Males Uncomfortable in Theaters Full of Straight People" works too. Between laughs, I felt guilty and welcomed the darkness of the theater, afraid to see if other viewers were shooting glances, sizing up just how much Brüno and I are alike.

The title has obviously changed, but much of the original plot is intact, with the exception of a scene featuring LaToya Jackson and an alternative gay-bash ending that insulted some and which studio executives deny existed. Like many others, Brüno comes to Los Angeles looking for fame, but he finds love in the last place he'd look. He tries acting, hosting a talk show, creating world peace, and promoting the latest "super cool" charities, all in the name of grabbing the spotlight. But the efforts leave him running from Orthodox Jews in the Middle East and walking dejected with rows of clothing racks, his assistant, and his exercise bike/dildo in tow.

In Borat, Cohen's target was American ignorance and hypocrisy. Most populations were the butt of some jokes. Brüno , however, makes the LGBT community the whole joke. As the film progresses, the plot becomes less about finding fame and more about finding those cheap summer laughs.

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Cohen explores much of America this way; his character and accent are stereotypes gone too far. He greets strangers -- including Appalachian hunters, Southern gay-converters, and Paula Abdul -- with a wide-eyed, "Hi, I'm Brüno." The events that follow surprise until your eyes match in "Oh no he didn't" astonishment. Some vignettes reveal ignorance where one might expect it. In others, Cohen slips from what might border on a treatise of Southern conservatives' views on homosexuality and unravels the quality through actions and plot points that are downright tacky.

He's a drunk dial who stumbles to represent anything truthfully. I wondered whether to do a deep reading or to shrug it off entirely. Walking from the theater, I'm sure others wondered if there really is some vitras en Brüno .

True or false, Brüno is important. While not Paris Is Burning or Before Stonewall , it will be absorbed by a much larger audience accustomed to representations of homosexuals that have become more minstrel than actual. Like many good jokes, this one is bound to fly over some heads -- and states -- but what keeps Cohen's creation from awakening the LGBT community in a cold sweat is a recognition that the true character flaw may lie elsewhere. Not all is forgiven, though.

I couldn't help looking down the lines at people who were struggling to make sense of the movie with me. I wonder how radically my conclusion differs from theirs and if the soreness in my ribs might be from a few swift kicks among the laughs.