In April, when the first trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie Bruno debuted online, many of us in the LGBT community were cautiously optimistic about what we saw - and I was among them.
I first became familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen through his Da Ali G Show on HBO, where he played different characters who conducted squirm-inducing interviews with political leaders, media personalities and everyday Americans. The characters' clueless questions - and the actor's impressive ability to never break character - allowed them to call attention to people's hang-ups, biases and intolerance.
One of those characters, Bruno, was a flamboyant gay correspondent for the fictional Austrian TV show Funkyzeit mit Bruno -- itself a satire of programs that feed people's obsession with fashion and pop culture. Bruno interviewed fashion designers, nightclub owners and models - but he also spoke to people with anti-gay attitudes, using the setting to send up the homophobia of some of his interview subjects.
Sacha Baron Cohen's 2006 blockbuster Borat made him a household name. Audiences and critics loved the movie. And based on what I had seen on Da Ali G Show, I had hoped that I might be able to say similar things about the forthcoming Brüno.
A little over a month ago, I attended a screening of an early cut of Bruno with a few other GLAAD staff members. Like Borat before it, Bruno is an episodic film that is broken up into a series of loosely connected scenes - many of which are very funny, satirically sharp and on target. Witness a series of interviews with disoriented celebrities early in the film. Or the way Bruno destroys a fashion show. Or the ways he exposes the lengths to which some parents will go to make stars of their toddlers. Or a lesson with a martial arts instructor who coaches Bruno on (among other things) how to detect a gay person. (Some choice advice: "Some of them don't even dress no different than myself or you.") It's scenes like these - and there are a lot of them in the film - where I got a clear sense that Bruno was firing on all cylinders, and the audience was in on the joke.
In one extended series of sequences, Bruno adopts a baby from Africa, giving Baron Cohen an opportunity to take aim at those celebrity parents who seem to treat their children like fashion accessories. What follows, though, shifts the film from smart social satire to something else entirely - a parade of over-the-top stereotypes that, whatever their intent, play to and could affirm troubling attitudes about gay people.
Bruno appears as a guest on a local TV talk show with the baby in tow. Then, following racially insensitive comments by Bruno in the presence of the largely African American audience, that audience is shown photos of what appears to be Bruno in a hot tub having sex with men inches away from the child. Horrified and outraged, the talk-show audience turns on Bruno.
What's disquieting about this scene - and others in the film - is that it doesn't call attention to or unmask cultural homophobia. Let's face it: there probably aren't many people in a real-world setting who wouldn't share that talk-show audience's reaction to a young child being treated this way. And in a country where gay and lesbian parents can still be denied the ability in some states to adopt the children they have raised since birth - and where those children can even be taken away from the only parents they've ever known - the idea of trivializing gay families, making them the butt of a series of crude jokes, and reinforcing pernicious stereotypes about gay men and children didn't feel funny. It felt dangerous.
[There's another fascinating aspect to this scene that emerged in an article that will appear in Sunday's New York Times. The studio appears concerned enough about this particular scene that someone who worked on the film is quoted in the Times as saying that, in fact, the photos were digitally altered and the baby was not actually present. This is going to be a relief to many who watch the film after having read the Times' story, but it raises questions about whether people who walk into this film are going to encounter translation problems with regard to its satirical intent.]
Is this to say that the entire movie, from beginning to end, was this alarming? Absolutely not. In fact, those of us who saw this film agreed that it's not really helpful to try to critique this as a single film. It's really a 90-minute series of sketches - some of which hit their mark, but some of which hit our community instead, and in ways that feel fundamentally antithetical to the intentions of the filmmakers.
We voiced our concerns about a number of Bruno's scenes to the filmmakers, and we have yet to see the final cut of the film. But it was clear that a few trims to a couple of scenes weren't going to be able to fully resolve those concerns.
Some audiences - including, I'm sure, allies and members of our community -- will simply not agree that these images are offensive. Others will find it frustrating to be confronted with demeaning, stereotypical images that feel like they're aimed not at increasing people's discomfort with homophobia, but rather at decreasing their comfort with gay people.
It's really a shame that Bruno ultimately misses the mark, in part because so much of it works. There was an opportunity here for Baron Cohen to move his often-brilliant satire on the reality of anti-gay prejudice beyond HBO viewers to a vast mainstream summer movie audience. I would have loved to have seen Bruno the movie take a few more of its cues from Bruno the character we got to know on HBO - where his skewering of stereotypes rarely, if ever, seemed to get tripped up by the stereotypes themselves. And I hope that our community's discussion of the movie creates opportunities for greater understanding and awareness of the difference.
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