In Defense of Brüno

bruno-movie-poster-500x740Brüno’s been getting mixed reviews, many of which are unjustified. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post reflects the critical reviews well by claiming: “In Borat, Cohen created a weird but mostly likable naif, whose bumbling travels revealed the roots of fear and ignorance that grow into larger and more dangerous hatreds. Brüno is no Borat. His narcissism, combined with the fact that the scenes in ‘Brüno’ are far more obviously staged than in the previous movie, give the entire enterprise a nasty and, worse, irrelevant tone… ‘Brüno’ could have been a flawlessly timed satiric contribution to the conversation about gay civil rights.”

Brüno is a comedy. Why are we holding Brüno to a standard requiring it to promote social justice? Sure, Borat was a better provocateur of racism and discrimination than Brüno is of homophobia, but the reality is that Borat did quite little in the long term to promote a conversation about discrimination. If there were a conversation, it was among tolerant social liberals who didn’t really need one. The fact that some of Bruno’s stunts are so extreme that they are alienating to both homosexuals and heterosexuals tends to make Brüno funny, not irrelevant unless the only criterion for relevance is that comedy promotes social change.

There’s only one scene in the movie that was nasty and not humorous, where Hornaday’s critique holds. In one scene, Brüno brings Congressman Ron Paul into the room to film a sex tape to get Brüno some notoriety. Paul sits patiently for a few minutes but leaves the room furious when he catches on. And, rightly so: This just isn’t funny. Unless you find harming other people inherently humorous (which many people do as reflecting through the popularity of Jackass—which is admittedly based more on physical harm—or even Punk’d) it’s hard to see much humor in this scene. But, most of the scenes in Brüno are not like this: Take the scene where Brüno brings his black baby (well, gayby) on the Richard Bey Show and tells the audience that he gave the child an African name…O.J. This scene elicited possibly the most laughter from the audience in my theater and much of the humor comes from misdirection, the fact that Brüno appears to be catering to the African-American audience by giving the baby an African name but he really isn’t. Moreover, additional humor comes from the fact that his use of O.J as a name reflects his insensitivity as a parent of a black child. Is the talk show audience annoyed at Bruno’s behavior? Sure. But that’s the nature of many pranks. Nevertheless, we are laughing as much at the absurdity of Brüno’s actions as the reaction of the audience. The humor does not solely come from inflicting harm on another individual as it does in the case of the Paul joke. And, there are plenty of scenes that are not harmful at all such as the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations scene.

I agree with critics that the more explicitly lewd scenes are too much and not particularly humorous. I felt similarly with several scenes in Borat, particularly the nude running scene. Yet, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker claims, “Forget satire; this guy doesn’t want to scorch the earth anymore. He just wants to swing his dick.” To say something like this is to take a very selective view of the movie, ignoring the karate, wrestling, and pastor scenes that lead to a lot of genuine laughs based on satire, or the ridicule of folly. Unless Lane is also employing the consequentialist assumption that satire needs to lead to some sort of social good, he is missing something. And if he is employing that definition, it is unfortunate because he’s missing out on some good laughs.

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