There are always a lot of angry questions bandied about in the wake of any work by Sacha Baron Cohen, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ask this one: “How far should we be expected to dumb down movies?” That’s what I always wonder when I hear those complaints about Baron Cohen’s work that generally amount to this: “Not everyone is smart enough to appreciate the subtleties of his humor, so isn’t that a bad thing? Shouldn’t we make sure that no one misinterprets Baron Cohen’s satire?”
Is this really how low we’ve sunk?
Is Baron Cohen’s Bruno — ostensibly an Austrian fashion guru and TV personality — an outrageous stereotype of homosexuality? Yes, without question. But it’s equally apparent that Bruno is not meant to send up homosexuals but to send up the sort of narrowminded bigotry that corners a dude into escaping into in-your-face outrageousness in the first place. (“Bruno” the character is also clearly a means by which to send up the idiocies of high fashion as well, but that gets far less play here than it might.) The fake working title of this movie, after all, was Bruno: 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, and that’s a perfect description… though perhaps it would be more fair to say “Homophobic Heterosexual Males.” Possibly it’s worth asking whether American bigotry, self-centeredness, and pettiness is a fair target for a British comedian. But when the United States is inarguably the dominant trendsetter in global pop culture, that’s probably a question easily batted away.
Baron Cohen’s (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) daring and fearlessness as a cultural critic is in as grand a form here as it was in Borat, his last adventure in courting physical assault and civil lawsuits in the name of lampooning such dearly held American virtues as kneejerk ignorance and superficiality. (And just to be clear: it’s not that Americans are the only ones to whom such labels could be applied, just that we’re the biggest target, and have only made ourselves so.) Bruno travels to Los Angeles after having been summarily dismissed from European fashion circles, in search of fame and fortune in the New World, where he finds the natives as shallow and as status-obsessed as he is. (If we didn’t already know such places were real, wouldn’t we find the anal-bleaching salon he visits almost too presposterous to believe? Anal? Bleaching? *shudder*)
Perhaps the overarching theme of Bruno is this: There is apparently nothing so extreme you can tell Americans that they will not believe… such as that a flamboyant gay Austrian looking to expand his celebrity would buy a small black child in Africa. The unspoken critique: Why do we celebrate Brad and Angelina for importing children if it’s wrong for people whose names we don’t know to do the same? But the more important critique isn’t one about the credulity of Americans — for, indeed, we do live in a world of anal-bleaching salons and crosscultural celebrity adoptions, so why not believe it? — but this: How did we let such a world come to be? Why do we accept without even questioning the affronts to our humanity that we live with? As Bruno cruises Los Angeles and then expands out into middle America, the questions multiply: Why do we accept a world in which people are dehumanized to the point at which no one questions babies being used as status symbols, people being used as furniture, bigotries being used to divide us? Why do we accept a world in which being on camera is so vital that no one — not even those whose reputations could be dinged by being punked by a punk like Baron Cohen — does even the slightest bit of research into who it is asking for an interview? (C’mon: a quick Google will reveal that the guy who wants to talk to you on TV is pulling your leg.) Why do we accept a world in which doing good — as for a charity — is inevitably turned into good PR?
I don’t want to spoil which deserving targets get the Baron Cohen treatment, but I will say this: He is bold as a performer, as a comedian, as a cultural observer. There is no boundary or taboo it seems he will not challenge, and at points his audacity gets damn near profound. (During a quick sojourn to the Middle East, he laments that he “doesn’t have enough ecstasy for everyone” to solve the political crises there, and it makes you wonder whether, if he did and everyone could just chill and hug, it mightn’t actually work). When so many public figures are deliberately shocking and offensive because they want us to join them in being small and mean and petty and tribal — I’m thinking of the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh — Baron Cohen is doing so for the very opposite reasons. And that is a good thing, and a thing very much worth celebrating.
Oh, and it’s also outrageously funny to watch, too.