Critics have been quick to dismiss the tepid reception of Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen's follow up to his comedy smash Borat, as either a flash in the pan or simply labeling Cohen himself as a one trick pony. After watching the movie the other night and laughing myself into hysterics, I have a much different opinion. Comparing the two films to each other is actually important because I believe the main difference lies between the xenophobia of the former and the homophobia of the latter.
While it might be a stretch to say that Borat captured the zeitgeist of the time, it did take this nation by storm for a few reasons. I believe that it presented the caricature of an immigrant in America at a time when the country was looking to find humor in such a device. Five years removed from 9/11, Americans were knee deep in a war they were mostly against and were about to oust the controlling political party out of power in the mid term elections that year. People were ready to move beyond the Bush doctrines and the narrow minded bigotry of anti-Arab sentiment. While Borat was clearly portrayed as Eastern European, his primitive views on women and Jews allowed Cohen to subtly mock the strict Muslim ideologies that were at war with the rest of the world. Borat gave us the laugh we were looking for. As if to underline his message, Borat starts his journey in New York City, where the citizens are terrified of both strangers and immigrants alike and proceeds across the Bible Belt, where he is either mistaken for an Arab or a homosexual. If he had begun in California, the movie would not have worked at all. Fortunately, the Golden State has remained unaffected by the terror attacks in this country, allowing us to live openly free of fear, which emboldens the largely held belief that most Californians are laid back, fun loving, pot smoking, tree hugging hippies who want to let gay illegal immigrants marry your baby for socialized medicine. Which is why Borat's story ended there and it is also where Bruno's begins.
The tale of Bruno and his quest to be an American celebrity is only half the story of a gay man looking for acceptance in society. The other half is entirely devoted to bashing the whole concept of 'celebrity' and fame. For all the laughs you can have as Cohen lets one pseudo-celebrity bash another or ask questions of celebrity charity PR reps that they can only answer slightly better than Miss South Carolina, you will shudder in horror as stage parents offer up their children to all manners of horrific situations in order to land a gig as a "baby to be dressed as a Nazi officer, pushing a wheelbarrow, with a Jewish baby, into an oven." If all the movie tried to be was an stinging criticism of empty, meaningless newsstand magazine type fame with sex tapes, anal waxing and carbo loading, it would probably have worked like gangbusters. But as is his fashion, Cohen pushes the envelope further.
In California, as in much of the rest of the world, gay rights is a serious topic. In only the past year, people have marched in the streets for gay rights, voted down measures against them and millions of dollars, countless hours of labor and so much more has been poured into the struggle on both sides. My state, which is as liberal and progressive as any other, does not find the hot button topic of gay rights and homophobia to be a laughing matter. To be sure, people like myself (straight, but friend of the family) are the key target for Cohen's work. But, the timing of the current political climate is working against him, where it worked for him so well before. When a openly gay character in a movie runs into a rally where picketers carry signs reading "God Hates Fags", his marriage is rejected, his child taken away and physical violence threatened upon him, not too many people are going to recommend the film to their friends. Five years down the line, I'm sure the movie will strike more people as funny than it does now, but hopefully, it will be because the prejudices and ugly hatred shown in the film will be a thing of the past.