Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest incarnation will catapult US audiences out of their comfort zone. It may offend some, but Brüno is a welcome antidote to the political-correctness pandemic.
On stage at this year’s Golden Globes, Sacha Baron Cohen made an off-colour joke about Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s divorce which generated gasps and shock from the assembled audience of luminaries.
“The Brüno character himself is an indictment of the US’s unquenchable thirst for celebrity, and his antics to achieve it only showcase ugly elements in the country’s fabric”
It was a clear indication that political correctness has become de rigueur in Hollywood, and indeed the US media at large; Baron Cohen, whose humour has always involved tripping up high-profile figures, might have found his toughest crowd yet in the entrenched infrastructure of talent, agents, managers and publicists, where jokes like these on primetime TV are viewed with severe disapproval.
But Baron Cohen had only just got started. His new movie Brüno, which opens in North America on July 10, pushes every limit and every button imaginable.
The adventures of flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion journalist Brüno and his quest to become famous in the US takes the viewer on a journey of squirming embarrassment and startling hilarity, pitting Brüno’s outrageous sexual antics against southern conservatives, religious zealots and rednecks, who clearly believe he is a real person. Nothing is sacred in Brüno. Nothing, and nobody.
I can imagine Brüno will provoke plenty of outrage in the US, a self-proclaimed conservative society which hinges on a puritanical sense of morality. I can already read the editorials saying he has gone too far with his unfettered, albeit patently comic, scenes of gay sex, kissing and fellatio. Indeed, PC gay advocacy groups have already come out against it, saying it will reinforce homophobia. A spokesman for GLAAD (the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) last week said some scenes were ‘outright offensive’.
But thank heavens for Baron Cohen, giving US comedy such a fearless shot of piss and vinegar. Brüno isn¹t a very coherent film - a storyline is merely hinted at as a connecting device for all the skits and sketches - but it dares to take on societal issues with a full-frontal bravado that most in the US entertainment community and media avoid assiduously for fear of losing any segment of their audience.
The Brüno character himself is an indictment of the US’s unquenchable thirst for celebrity, and his antics to achieve it - adopting a black baby, looking for a suitable charity to endorse, even becoming straight - only showcase ugly elements in the country’s fabric, namely hypocrisy on multiple levels, religious fundamentalism and angry homophobia.
Many will disagree with his methods, but you can’t deny the awful truth in watching parents happy to exploit their children for personal gain, ‘gay converters’ who prove as misogynistic as they are ridiculous, and an angry mob at a wrestling match who shout about their ‘straight pride’.
At a time when gay civil rights are a hot-button issue in the US, Brüno ramps up the volume with a vulgarity that is refreshing.
The film is bound to open with big numbers. At the screening I attended, several hundred teenagers waited for the film to start with the kind of excitement you’d expect for a new Star Wars film. One kid even stood up and cheered when the Universal logo came up (complete with an umlaut on the ‘U’).
The applause at the film’s end, however, was muted. Brüno goes beyond Borat and determinedly takes viewers out of their comfort zone. It is unlikely to generate word of mouth on a par with its Kazakh predecessor, once general audiences understand a ticket for Brüno is one into a world of unease they might not be able to handle.
But Brüno’s comedy of discomfort should be applauded at a time when comedy in general in mainstream film and on TV has sunk to new levels of blandness.
Baron Cohen shocks you to react in a year where new outings from the once-provocative Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell and Steve Martin have left audiences fatally indifferent.