Watching Sacha Baron Cohen's latest shockumentary Brüno on Sunday afternoon, I couldn't help but be reminded of the first scripture reading from that morning's Catholic Mass. It was from the book of Amos, in which the Old Testament prophet is run out of Bethel for challenging the status quo with his disturbing visions. Scripturally speaking, a true prophet isn't doing his or her job properly if they aren't run out of town at the end of the day.
While decidedly more secular — and bordering on the X-rated — the flamboyantly gay, Austrian fashionista Brüno serves a prophetic function of sorts. Like Baron Cohen's prior creation, Borat, he is out to expose and ridicule socio-cultural or religious mores that can be construed as outdated (if not false to begin with). While it can be argued that Baron Cohen and his cinematic co-conspirators' approach likely won't change the hearts and minds of those unwitting folks they "punk," observers may be scared into submission.
The first half of Brüno doesn't take on the topic of homosexuality so much as our obsession with celebrity. Brüno's longing to establish himself in the US as "the gayest Austrian movie star since Schwarzenegger" becomes the mirror through which we see stage parents more than willing to put their children in harm's way if it means they'll get the part, as well as a presidential candidate (Ron Paul) who is disturbingly slow to react to Brüno's obviously seductive moves.
I admire Baron Cohen's complete devotion to his characters and their mission. His clown-like disregard of self in his effort to get laughs and enlighten viewers in the process drew favorable comparisons to Lucille Ball at a post-screening discussion of Brüno I facilitated.
When Brüno does turn its lens on the enduring, illogical ugliness of homophobia via a pair of Christian "therapists" who claim to be able to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals and a climactic cage fight during which one fears for Baron Cohen's life, the film disturbs more than it entertains. But that is likely indicative of Baron Cohen's ultimate intent: to call our society to a broader conversion toward tolerance and peace.
UPDATE: Brüno is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.