The Brünos Who Surround Us

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film is a satire of the highest form, says Lee Siegel—one that exposes the reckless ego in us all as we scurry to get in on his game, with no questions asked.

07.11.09 10:06 PM ET

The critics who are calling Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno an unfunny, tasteless failure are wrong. Cohen’s latest film is the most effective satire since Jonathan Swift’s Digression on Madness.

Swift’s success in that extraordinary essay was to reach a point where madness and sanity blended into each other. Madness shouted the truth but also nonsense; sanity spoke both reasonably and insanely. The infinite regression of meaning allowed Swift to utter unutterable illuminations about human existence. The gifted satirist knows how to play with masks.

Brüno is not repellent because he is flamboyantly gay. He is a flamboyantly gay man who happens to be repellent.

Speaking of tastelessness, it was Swift who used the fantasy of anal birth to express the source of satirical wit: truth’s essentially asocial, sordid, disreputable nature. The great satirist derives the power of his assault on society from the body’s most ignominious orifice. He doesn’t speak truth to power. That’s boring, and anyway, power knows how to “spin” the truth. Rather, the effective satirist flings shit into power’s face. Real truth isn’t pretty. And it’s hard to wipe off, let alone “spin.”

There is anality galore in  Brüno, the story of a gay Austrian diva, once prominent in the world of European high fashion—he is the former host of an Austrian fashion TV show called Funkyzeit—who falls from grace and travels to America to recover his lost celebrity.

Cohen’s previous satirical persona, Borat, a provocatively clueless visitor from Kazakhstan, also comes to America. But Borat betrayed its comic purposes by ridiculing the easy target of provincial prejudice instead of the subtler and more powerful biases that hide behind some “sophisticated” attitudes. In  Brüno, Cohen sets out to correct his mistake by returning to a version of his first persona, Ali G, a similarly clueless white boy who is doing a black rapper who insulted some of the world’s most influential people who naïvely—and opportunistically—appeared as guests on his show.

Cohen’s target in  Brüno is, superficially, the absurd pursuit of fame that seems to plague American life. It’s odd, in fact, that no one has made the connection between the media’s weird obsession with the death of Michael Jackson and Cohen’s deconstruction of celebrity hollowness.

What better target, after all, if you want to satirize the American obsession with fame than Paula Abdul, one of American Idol’s judges? Arriving in Los Angeles, Brüno decides to become re-famous by interviewing famous people and has Abdul over to his fancy new house. Unfortunately, he doesn’t own any furniture. So he has some of the Mexican workmen who are fixing up his new digs get down on all fours and serve as tables and chairs.

Tasteless? You bet. And the perfect conceit to expose true spiritual vulgarity. Abdul enters and, though visibly surprised by the novel accommodations, amiably slips right into her celebrity share of entitled attention and takes a seat on the back of one of the Mexicans. She chats chirpily with Brüno, indifferent to this new low in the history of immigrant labor. It’s only when Brüno has his assistant wheel in some hors d’oeuvres on the ample naked stomach of another Mexican that Abdul decides she can’t be there, abruptly gets up and leaves. But she was there, and happily so, and it’s not clear whether she leaves out of an eruption of moral indignation or because she finds the prospect of eating off an immigrant’s naked stomach hygienically problematic. You can sit on them, but when it comes to food…

If all  Brüno were was a satire on the obsession with fame and celebrity, it would not be enough to hold your attention for very long. But the desire to be famous is also a desire to satisfy your appetites with impunity, to elevate selfishness into a moral principle. The universal desire to be famous is a social problem. Brüno himself is a selfish pig.

Perhaps some straight critics can’t bring themselves to admit that a flamboyantly gay man can at the same time be morally repellent. But Brüno is not repellent because he is flamboyantly gay. He is a flamboyantly gay man who happens to be repellent.

No one, straight or gay, could possibly admire or like a man who goes to Africa to adopt a black baby because he thinks it will make him as famous as Angelina and Madonna. (You remember them: the Women Who Mistook an Infant for a Louis Vuitton bag.) No one could even tolerate a man who names his adopted baby O.J. and then proceeds to exploit the child on television, and who makes a pilot film for a new TV series starring himself in which he has his penis saying his name to the camera.

Unlike Borat, in which the insanely obtuse Kazakhstanian exposed the fear and parochialism of powerless people,  Brüno shows the dignity of similar people when confronted with the outrageous narcissism of its satirical hero/antihero. The black women in the audience of the talk show on which Brüno appears to casually discuss his appalling plans to exploit little O.J. rise to eloquence when they angrily shout him down. The ordinary, crushed-looking people in the focus group who watch Brüno’s pilot episode with the talking penis saying “Brüno” become beautiful when they leave the premises in disgust.

Why, the movie seems to be saying, do we not respond in the same way to the excesses of ego all around us? Are we not surrounded by talking penises (to use the polite term) every minute of the day, who are in essence simply saying their name over and over again?

True to Cohen’s Swiftian complexity, Brüno is not simply morally repulsive. He is also, as he must be, the gay man as truthteller, provocateur, vulnerable misfit. The scenes where Brüno encounters Christian gay converters, spends the night in the woods with redneck hunters, and undergoes National Guard training skirt, as it were, Borat territory by exposing the primal terror of confronting an alien sexuality.

Yet there is a softness in some of these moments that Borat lacked. The scene in which leather-clad Brüno and the three camouflage-clad hunters sit silently around a campfire under a nighttime sky filled with stars goes beyond satire into a kind of tender Beckettian absurdity. The shape of human hunger is incalculable. Camouflage is another name for being human.

You are reminded of this note of mystery in the film’s penultimate scene, a cage match between Brüno and his lovelorn assistant, whom Brüno had once had recreational sex with and then heartlessly spurned. After a few minutes, the two men stop fighting and begin passionately and graphically to make love. The Red State audience is outraged, furious, despairing. Yet there is a question as to why they are so profoundly unsettled. Are they horrified by the sight of two men having sex? Or are they horrified by the spectacle of Brüno’s selfishness giving way to self-surrender? If it’s the latter, then what they are witnessing is the violation of everything that American culture nowadays seems to stand for.

The film has one major flaw. You don’t know which of Brüno’s foils are actors and which are real people caught up in his satiric net. This is a version of the problem that has been plaguing the country in general: No one wants to invest any equity in a house or a deal. But by not investing truth in the film—by not coming clean about what is true and what is false—Cohen thwarts his own satire. We don’t know where truth has triumphed because we don’t know what is true. Satire has to rest on truth sooner or later.

But this slipperiness gets redeemed in the film’s final moments when we see Brüno—having become famous again—singing a song of himself accompanied by Bono, Sting, Elton John and Snoop Dogg. Has Cohen sold his satirical birthright for a mess of stars?

Well, the film has previously put Bono and Sting in a bad light, stigmatizing them as celebrities seeking celebrated causes to remain celebrities. And Elton John, we gradually see, is playing the piano while sitting on a Mexican. Is Cohen himself so clueless that he would let his guard down and compromise his film by using celebrities to sell it, thus becoming the very thing he has been satirizing? Or are these celebrities so besotted with themselves, a la Brüno, that they cannot believe that Cohen would betray their trust and put them in a ridiculous light? My own feeling is that this film is a true piece of shit. In other words, it is a Swiftian splendor.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.