The Problem With Brüno: What Is This a “Satire” of?

Josh points out that Sacha Baron Cohen is being held to an unfair standard in many reviews of Brüno: Why is a comedian obligated to perform social commentary? The goal of Brüno is not to end homophobia, it’s to be funny. 

The fact is that Cohen has never really been a social commentator: Even his work as Borat never had the exaggerated social implications that some people claimed. The people featured in the film were generally marginal, or their prejudices came as no surprise. What does come as a surprise, and is more often mined for laughs by Cohen, is tolerance and social manners.

In Brüno, this is even more obvious. The jokes in the film don’t often come from highlighting homophobia, but from what exactly Cohen can get away with. Can he talk on the phone while he’s getting his anus bleached? Yes. Can he get Paula Abdul to sit on a Mexican worker posing as furniture? Yes. Can he show his penis to a focus group, and then make it talk? Yes. Can he pretend to fellate a ghost in front of a psychic? Yes.

There are, as Josh points out, scenes in which Brüno simply gets humor from letting others talk, like the O.J. scene and a scene in which interns at a P.R. firm try to pronounce “Darfur.” But these seem staged and easy, with targets pre-selected and often just eager to be onscreen.

Most of the time, as in the Ron Paul scene, we are not laughing at anyone, because in the same situation, we would probably do the same thing. There is a scene where Brüno and his lover get thrown out of a hotel after a staff member walks in on them handcuffed together and draped in S&M attire. The staff member is visibly uncomfortable and angry, but who wouldn’t be? It’s not homophobia to want to select whose ass you see. Management throws them out of the hotel not due to prejudice, but because they trashed their room.

Satire is supposed to hold something to ridicule, but if the subjects of Brüno are not really guilty of anything but being duped by Cohen, then what exactly is the film ridiculing? It’s not about “consequentialism,” as Josh says—Brüno does not have any social effect—but about what the satire is directed at. What exactly is the joke behind this exaggerated stereotype? It seems that the only really funny thing offered is the stereotype itself.

Other than the lofty (and unfair) expectations for the movie, part of the disappointment with Brüno comes from this conclusion: We are not really meant to laugh at bigotry in the face of stereotypes, but at the stereotypes themselves. As Anthony Lane says in The New Yorker:

Brüno feels hopelessly complicit in the prejudices that it presumes to deride. You can’t honestly defend your principled lampooning of homophobia when nine out of every ten images that you project onscreen comply with the most threadbare cartoons of gay behavior.

And this is why Brüno is a failure. It is passing itself off as satire, but it is really just crude, vulgar, and lazy. Lane is correct to call it a “cartoon.” What is especially funny about dildoes (or other sex toys or air-fellatio or running around naked) to anyone over the age of 12?

Brüno doesn’t really have to be clever. Given its mockumentary style, in which you are either duped or playing along, Brüno presents two options: Either you will laugh at the obscure sex acts and gross images because you are in on the joke, or you are old-fashioned, closed-minded and uncool. But the truth is that Brüno is neither social commentary nor particularly funny; it’s just gross.

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