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Does Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Bruno’ expose homophobia?

by Danielle Berrin

June 15, 2009 | 7:07 pm

Sacha Baron Cohen in character as "Bruno"
crashing the catwalk during Milan's
Fashion Week last fall.

So far, Sacha Baron Cohen’s PR tactic for his new film “Bruno” is to deny all interviews. Instead, he is orchestrating a series of live dramatic stunts as the film’s title character, a flamboyantly gay fashionista who aspires to be “the most famous Austrian since Hitler.” The first stunt occurred back in September 2008, when Bruno stormed a runway during Milan Fashion Week. He was quickly pummeled by security guards and escorted to the streets, before trying the same trick at Stella McCartney’s runway show in Paris. At the 2009 MTV Movie Awards a few weeks ago, a jock-strap clad Bruno descended from high-wires and landed his bum in rapper Eminem’s face. Onlookers were scandalized as Eminem fled the theater

Interest in the film has soared as a result of Baron Cohen’s outlandish antics. But what’s captivating a worldwide audience is far more than the face value of his comedy. Bruno’s in-your-face, over-the-top queerness is meant to challenge gay stereotypes. Many are interpreting Baron Cohen’s outright mockery of those stereotypes as a comment or expose on homophobia. Gay groups are cautiously restrained when commenting on the film, with some feeling that its humor may be too high-minded for the average moviegoer. As they say, homophobics may not get that the joke is on them; especially when the film skirts the line between being offensive or enlightening.

In a story by Brookes Barnes in yesterday’s New York Times, “Bruno” was described as “mercilessly exploiting the discomfort created when straight men are ambushed by aggressive gayness,” which unsurprisingly, he wrote, exposes homophobia. However, the headline of Barnes’s story went so far as to suggest that the film is a “plea for tolerance,” with a carefully added, “or not”. Since Baron Cohen isn’t talking to reporters, it’s unclear whether he has higher social ambitions for his film, or whether this supremely sensitive moment in the gay movement even wants his commentary. It’s possible Baron Cohen is simply using the lure of laughter to sell movie tickets, even at the expense of a minority group. After all, he’s done it before and I can hardly blame “Borat” for either increasing or alleviating Jewish anti-Semitism.

More from the New York Times story:

“Brüno” is not a lecture, at least not overtly. Like “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the 2006 smash that starred Mr. Baron Cohen as an anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist, “Brüno” is first and foremost a raunchy comedy featuring a not-so-bright guy who embraces sexism, racism and stereotypes as he happily goes about his business. Borat and Brüno are both familiar to fans of “Da Ali G Show,” Mr. Baron Cohen’s satirical talk show, which first ran in Britain in 2000 and began appearing on HBO in 2003.

Yet “Brüno” is also intended as a statement about what it is like to be a member of a minority in America in 2009. Mr. Baron Cohen’s malaprop-loaded antics are fictional, but the hate they can elicit from the people he encounters is ostensibly real. (The same was true of “Borat,” which some human rights groups also greeted with hostility; Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League said at the time that audiences “may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke.”)

Read more about Bruno:
Sacha Baron Cohen’s tussle with Eminem

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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