As a regular cinema goer, I am used to being disappointed. Films rarely live up to their advanced billing and the critics are often bamboozled by a director’s reputation. But never have I felt so angry as when I walked out of Bruno, the new “satire” starring Sacha Baron-Cohen.
I was expecting a hilarious send-up of the New York fashion business, which is how the film had been promoted in the run-up to its release. I spent five years working in that world and I know just how pretentious and self-important its leading lights can be.
Bruno starts off quite promisingly, with Baron-Cohen playing exactly the kind of gay, narcissistic television presenter I encountered all too often in New York. But instead of taking aim at some of the big names in the business, the comedian confines himself to a few non-entities at the bottom of the status-ladder. This was hardly the “fearless” satire I was expecting.
After that, the film loses interest in the fashion business altogether and Baron-Cohen sets off on a journey across America, determined to root out evidence of bigotry and intolerance. What had promised to be a witty exposé of the rich and famous turns into a crude attempt to ridicule ordinary people for not being tolerant enough in their attitude towards homosexuals.
In order to achieve this, Baron-Cohen performs a succession of obscene stunts, giving his victims little choice about how to react. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone, however “enlightened”, not being disgusted by his behaviour.
For instance, one scene consists of Bruno performing a series of imaginary sex acts on the ghost of Rob Pilatus, one half of the German singing duo Milli Vanilli, as a bemused psychic looks on.
In another scene, an unsuspecting focus group is forced to watch a pilot for a new gay TV show that includes an erect penis.
Admittedly, the version of the film I saw was rated ‘18’ and some of this content has been toned down for the ‘15’ version. But the filmmakers only had to remove 110 seconds to get the British Board of Film Classification to change the certificate. I cannot imagine how the BBFC judged Bruno suitable for 15-year-olds after cutting less than two minutes.
The most disturbing episode occurs about two-thirds of the way through when Baron-Cohen, disguised as Bruno, appears on an African-American chat show called The Richard Bey Show. His reason for appearing on the programme, he tells the audience, is to find a black male partner to help him raise his adopted African baby.
The child is then brought out wearing a T-shirt that says “Gayby”. “He’s a real dick magnet,” Bruno explains. To illustrate this, the audience is shown a picture of the child in a hot tub with four gay men, two of whom are performing a sex act.
As you’d expect, the audience becomes increasingly angry and upset, but what is the justification for goading them in this way? According to Universal Pictures, the Hollywood studio distributing the film, “Bruno uses provocative comedy to powerfully shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia.”
But Baron-Cohen doesn’t “shed light” on the “homophobia” of this audience so much as provoke them into a negative reaction -- and he keeps pushing until they finally snap. In any case, it isn’t clear that objecting to a baby being present while a homosexual act is performed is “homophobic”. I daresay the audience would not have responded well if it was a man and a woman having sex instead.
Once you strip away the supposedly high-minded intentions of Baron-Cohen and his collaborators, the scene in question begins to seem uncomfortably snobbish, not to say racist. An educated, metropolitan audience is being invited to laugh at poor, ignorant blacks for not having the wherewithal to conceal their visceral disgust when being confronted by someone who looks suspiciously like a pederast.
Is this “satire”? I have always thought of satire as one of the few weapons the powerless can wield against the powerful -- a way of bringing the high and mighty back down to earth. By that definition, Bruno is the exact opposite of satire. Baron-Cohen is encouraging the sophisticated, liberal elite to look down their noses at those in a lower income bracket to themselves. “Not only are they your social inferiors,” he seems to be saying, “they are your moral inferiors as well.”
Another requirement of a good satire is that it should be true, exposing the lies and hypocrisy of the elite, and Bruno fails that test, too.
Take the scene in the television studio. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that The Richard Bey Show hasn’t been on the air since 1996. The filmmakers have had to create a fictional chat show in order to stage this scene and yet it is presented as a real television programme.
If the show is fake how can we be sure that audience members are genuine? Are some of them, in fact, actors pretending to be “homophobes”? And if that’s the case, Baron-Cohen isn’t “shedding light” on the “intolerance and ignorance” of African-Americans, so much as saddling them with racial stereotypes.
As the film goes on, it becomes clear that at least half the scenes are stunted up in this way, with actors masquerading as small-minded bigots to illustrate Baron-Cohen’s prejudices about what ordinary people are like.
Once it dawns on you that over 50 per cent of the supposedly real-life characters are being played by actors, the laughter dies in your throat. It is not the people on camera who are being gulled, but the people in the cinema, and such dishonesty is surely a much more basic moral defect than any of the shortcomings -- intolerance, bigotry, homophobia -- Baron-Cohen “exposes” in the film.
Of course, some of the people in Bruno are the real McCoy -- poor dupes who’ve been “had” by Baron-Cohen -- and woe betide any of them who’ve had the temerity to object. So far, all complaints have been met with the full legal might of the Hollywood entertainment machine.
Once again, this is hardly the behaviour of a typical satirist. A famous American humourist once described the purpose of his work as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. The purpose of Baron-Cohen’s work, by contrast, is to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.
The final scene in Bruno consist of Baron-Cohen singing a Live Aid-style anthem alongside various do-gooders, including Sting, Bono and Elton John. We are supposed to admire these pop stars for allowing the comedian to send them up, but in fact they’re not risking anything.
Bruno isn’t a satire in the true sense of the word. Rather, it is a huge wet kiss to the snobs and elitist of the Hollywood entertainment industry, reassuring them that their politically correct attitudes are absolutely right and that ordinary people, who don’t share their “enlightened” values, deserve nothing but contempt.