By Stephanie Zacharek
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Heterosexuals can't understand camp because everything they do is camp," opined an associate of the old Play-House of the Ridiculous, a New York theater known for its good-natured, anarchic sexual farce.
Such, more or less, is the method of the new Sacha Baron Cohen extravaganza Brüno. Communist Poland supported a sort of Yiddish theater without Yids; is it possible to have Ridiculous comedy without queers? Brüno, directed by guerrilla filmmaker Larry Charles, is often hilarious. Is it a minstrel show? Co-opting gay culture? Evidence of new tolerance or ineradicable prejudice? Or is it just using queerness to talk about something else?
The eye-batting, lip-pursing, petulantly self-regarding host of the Austrian TV show Funkyzeit, Brüno is a star — and regarded as such from the disco flourish that first heralds his appearance in hot-canary lederhosen to his final triumph before a wrestling-fan rabble bellowing "straight pride." Brüno itself is vulgar vaudeville of the highest order. It's conceptually comparable to John Waters's radically ridiculous Pink Flamingos in its programmatic desire to outrage but, unlike Brüno, Pink Flamingos came from somewhere beyond the pale.
Baron Cohen casts the straight world as his straight man, though it hardly seems likely that audiences will respond as indignantly as the "real-life" focus group assembled to evaluate the pilot for Brüno's American TV show, A-List Celebrity Max-Out Mit Brüno. Still, Brüno has something to offend everyone — or had. Just before the movie's Los Angeles premiere, a scene in which Brüno "interviews" a befuddled LaToya Jackson — coaxing her to imitate brother Michael as she sits perched on the back of a middle-aged Mexican laborer stolidly on his hands and knees (the only available furniture) — was cut in deference to the Jackson family. This is unfortunate, because the late sacred monster and his newly resurrected fan base are intrinsic to Brüno's critique of show business.
Brüno's irrepressible outré sexuality is only the most provocative aspect of his mad exhibitionism. Brüno burlesques homophobia the way Borat did anti-Semitism, but its true subject is the nature of celebrity — or rather the dialectic between celebrity and otherness. Le freak c'est chic. To the degree that Brüno has a plot, it follows its "schwartz-listed" fashionista to Hollywood, where he hopes to become "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler."
Like any star, Baron Cohen resolves contradictions; he's an open-minded bigot, an amoral moralist, an honest con man, a clever fool, and a performer whose crudeness is filled with grace. Even more than Borat, Brüno attests to the actor's skill at verbal and physical comedy. Whether wreaking havoc on a fashion show or pantomiming a blow job, Baron Cohen is a superb clown. He's also fearless — prancing into a "God Hates Fags" demonstration, outrageously cruising a group of backwoods hunters.
Even after Borat, Baron Cohen manages to confound ordinary people and dim-witted professionals — though the setups and supportive editing strategies seem more apparent here. He pranks hotel room service with an elaborate s/m tableaux and visits a Christian "therapist" who specializes in converting gays to straight. LaToya aside, a few fellow celebs fall for his line. Is Congressman Ron Paul really that clueless, or was the Republican presidential candidate only desperate for publicity in allowing himself to be inveigled into Brüno's hotel room for an "interview"? It hardly matters. That desperation is Brüno's universal principle. Thus, Baron Cohen reserves his most brutal satire for the use of accessory children.
Returning from safari, Brüno unpacks his souvenirs before an incredulous crowd surrounding the airport baggage carousel; the trinkets include a six-month-old African adoptee. Naturally, he uses the baby to get himself on a Springer-type TV show, infuriating a mainly African-American audience by explaining that little O.J. is his "dick magnet." Outrage is entertainment! Baron Cohen has predicated Brüno on the idea that Americans will do almost anything to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame — as will Brüno, not to mention his inventor. What's more, we dig it.
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