Commentary: See 'Bruno' before judging

The 'Is "Bruno" good for the gays?' debate has begun

I haven't seen "Bruno" yet. But then most of those who already are criticizing the film from comedian-provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen and his "Borat" director Larry Charles haven't seen the finished product, either. It doesn't open until July 10.

Nonetheless, the commentariat is worried that by taking on the persona of Bruno, a flamboyant Austrian fashionista with a taste for the homo-sex, Baron Cohen could be playing into the prejudices of homophobes. And so the "Is 'Bruno' good for the gays?" debate has begun.

We've witnessed this familiar bit of cultural kabuki before. Last year, in advance of Mike Myers' supremely silly "The Love Guru," Hindu leader Rajan Zed charged that the movie "appears to be lampooning Hinduism and Hindus." But the movie bombed, and the "controversy" quickly dissipated.

Three years ago, in anticipation of "Borat," the Anti-Defamation League took a more sophisticated approach, noting that Baron Cohen was known for using "humor to unmask the absurd and irrational side of anti-Semitism." Still, it fretted "that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry."

Now the gay establishment is wrestling with a similar dilemma.

"We do feel the intentions of the filmmakers are in the right place -- satire of this form can unmask homophobia -- but at the same time it can heighten people's discomfort with our community," Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, has said.

Because Universal speaks only in the language of corporate responsibility, it can't simply say, "Screw 'em if they can't take a joke." Instead, the studio piously says the movie "uses provocative comedy to powerfully shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia."

Sure, Baron Cohen is a smart guy, and his comedy does have its intellectual underpinnings. But honestly, as moviegoers exited "Borat," they weren't exclaiming, "What a brilliant expose of anti-Semitism!" They were talking about how much they laughed. And if "Bruno" works, something similar will happen.

So, how about a little perspective?

Because movies sit atop the entertainment food chain, critics attribute a lot more power to them than they probably deserve. To be sure, Hollywood has set plenty of fashion trends, but when it comes to social change, movies more often reflect change than effect it. "Philadelphia" in 1993 didn't lead the battle against AIDS; instead, it mirrored the response to AIDS that the gay community had pioneered.

Actually, TV is a much more powerful medium when it comes to affecting hearts and minds. It's more intimate, setting up shop right in our homes, and its longform format allows for real character development. Take Marc St. James on ABC's "Ugly Betty." As played by Michael Urie in ever-changing, over-the-top ensembles, he's as much of a flibbertigibbet follower of fashion as Bruno. But once or twice a season, the series shows him in a more human light -- standing up to his mother, lending support to young gay-in-training Justin -- and in doing so reveals a real person beneath the stereotype.

But that isn't Baron Cohen's stock in trade. His brand of comedy purposely traffics in stereotypes. He isn't some cuddly humorist a la Garrison Keillor. He's a slash-and-burn satirist in the vein of Jonathan Swift, who in "A Modest Proposal" advocated eating babies -- observing that "a healthy child well nursed is ... a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or broiled" -- as a way of ending poverty in Ireland. At least "Bruno" doesn't go that far.

Are you sure about that, its critics ask, pointing to the sequence where Bruno adopts a baby. A number of gay opinion-makers, invited to view a rough cut, were particularly put off by the sight of Bruno making out with another guy in a hot tub with the baby parked nearby. At a moment when gay families are fighting for their rights, the joke seems incendiary.

But take a breath. From the movie's trailer, it's pretty clear that "Bruno" is satirizing celebrity adoptions, not gay parenting. His target is Madonna and Angelina, not the nice gay couple next door. To say Bruno somehow is typical of all gay fathers is like saying "Mommie Dearest's" Joan Crawford represents all single moms.

But such distinctions tend to get lost in the midst of political battle. And, as gay men and women press the case for equal rights, not everyone is in the mood to find Bruno -- the latest in a long line of screen queens -- amusing.

Frustrated over the passage of Prop. 8 and the "Just Don't Ask" attitude of the Obama administration, it would be all too easy to take that frustration out on "Bruno." But let's see the movie first. It ultimately might merit criticism. On the other hand, it also might be funny.
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