“Heterosexuals can’t understand camp because everything they do is camp,” opined an associate of the old Playhouse of the Ridiculous, a theater known for its good-natured, anarchic sexual farce—a piece like Turds in Hell, which offered a farrago of sodomy, sadomasochism, incest, coprophagia, bestiality, homosexual behavior of every kind, dildo-swatting, and erotic practices beyond description, all played for laughs.
Such, more or less, is the method of the new Sacha Baron Cohen extravaganza, Brüno. Communist Poland supported a sort of Yiddish theater without Yids; is it possible to have Ridiculous comedy without queers? Brüno, directed by guerrilla filmmaker Larry Charles, is often hilarious. Lynn Shelton’s mumblecore bromance Humpday, a sexual sitcom, is also very funny. Are they minstrel shows? Co-opting gay culture? Evidence of new tolerance or ineradicable prejudice? Or are they just using queer-ness to talk about something else?
The eye-batting, lip-pursing, petulantly self-regarding host of the Austrian TV show Funkyzeit, Brüno is a star—and regarded as such from the disco flourish that first heralds his appearance in hot-canary lederhosen to his final triumph before a wrestling-fan rabble bellowing “straight pride.” Brüno itself is vulgar vaudeville of the highest order. It’s conceptually comparable to John Waters’s radically ridiculous Pink Flamingos in its programmatic desire to outrage, but, unlike Brüno, Pink Flamingos came from somewhere beyond the pale. Whatever else happens in Brüno‘s world, nobody eats shit—literally, that is.
Baron Cohen casts the straight world as his straight man, although it hardly seems likely that audiences will respond as indignantly as the “real-life” focus group assembled to evaluate the pilot for Brüno’s American TV show, A-List Celebrity Max-Out mit Brüno. Still, Brüno has something to offend everyone—or had. Just before the movie’s Los Angeles premiere, a scene in which Brüno “interviews” a befuddled LaToya Jackson—coaxing her to imitate brother Michael as she sits perched on the back of a middle-aged Mexican laborer stolidly on his hands and knees (the only available furniture)—was cut out of deference for the Jackson family. Baron Cohen can make a Jesus joke or bait Hasidim, but his anti-clericalism has limits—mocking Michael Jackson would be blasphemy. This is unfortunate because the late sacred monster and his newly resurrected fan base are intrinsic to Brüno’s critique of show business.
Brüno’s irrepressible outré sexuality is only the most provocative aspect of his mad exhibitionism. Brüno burlesques homophobia the way Borat did anti-Semitism, but its true subject is the nature of celebrity—or rather the dialectic between celebrity and otherness. Le freak, c’est chic. To the degree that Brüno has a plot, it follows its “schwarz-listed” fashionista to Hollywood, where he hopes to become “the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler.” (Hitler? In another bit of misplaced tact, Brüno’s gubernator compatriot is conspicuously unmentioned.)
Like any star, Baron Cohen resolves contradictions—he’s an open-minded bigot, an amoral moralist, an honest conman, a clever fool, and a performer whose crudeness is filled with grace. Even more than Borat, Brüno attests to the actor’s skill at verbal and physical comedy. Baron Cohen’s fluent falsch Deutsch rivals the bluster Mel Brooks used to write for Sid Caesar—although not even Brooks would have dared use Auschwitz as a synonym for arschloch (asshole). Whether wreaking havoc on a fashion show or pantomiming a blowjob or using a martial arts instructor as a foil to dramatize homosexual panic, Baron Cohen is a superb clown. He’s also fearless—prancing into a “God Hates Fags” demonstration, outrageously cruising a group of backwoods hunters (whom he compares to “the Sex and the City girls”), and crashing a hetero swingers’ party (which takes Brüno pretty close to an X). There’s a reason why the ring in the Arkansas wrestling arena is surrounded by a chain-link, barbwire-topped fence—Baron Cohen’s gag might well have gotten him crucified.
Even after Borat, Baron Cohen manages to confound ordinary people and dim-witted professionals—although the setups and supportive editing strategies seem here more apparent. He pranks a hotel’s room service with an elaborate s/m tableau and visits a Christian “therapist” who specializes in converting gays to straight: “Can I still play the clarinet? What if I put a flute up my shtinker?” LaToya aside, a few fellow celebs fall for his line. Is Congressman Ron Paul, whom Brüno chooses to confuse with RuPaul, really that clueless or was the Republican presidential candidate only desperate for publicity in allowing himself to be inveigled into Brüno’s hotel room for an “interview”? It hardly matters. That desperation is Brüno‘s universal principle. Thus, Baron Cohen reserves his most brutal satire for the use of accessory children.
Returning from safari, Brüno unpacks his souvenirs before an incredulous crowd surrounding the airport baggage carousel; the trinkets include a six-month-old African adoptee. Naturally, he uses the baby to get himself on a Springer-type TV show, infuriating a mainly African-American audience by explaining that little O.J. is his “dick magnet.” Others may be appalled when Brüno haughtily auditions a series of avid stage parents, getting them to agree to allow their babies to act on a set lit by phosphorus, work with “antiquated machinery,” dress up as Nazis, dramatize the crucifixion of Christ, and, if necessary, submit to liposuction. Outrage is entertainment! Baron Cohen has predicated Brüno on the idea that Americans will do almost anything to achieve their 15 minutes of fame—as will Brüno, not to mention his inventor. What’s more, we dig it.
Funny as it is, Brüno could not be as shockingly uproarious as Borat. No matter how well retold, a joke necessarily loses explosive force the second time around. But a great gag is a thing of beauty forever—so, too, a comic performance. As the primitive Asiatic “other” Borat (at once crypto Jew and rabid anti-Semite), Baron Cohen articulated a violent antipathy, inciting the unwary to agree with him. As the sophisticated, though stupid, European “other” Brüno (at once narcissistic celeb and frantic wannabe), Baron Cohen courts that antipathy himself. In both cases, he confounds his audience, creating a persona we hate to love.
Humpday opens with a pair of breeders in bed. (Everything they do is camp.) A youngish married couple, Ben (mumblecordeon Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore), confess that they’re too tired to procreate that night and then confess their mutual relief. As if in response, the doorbell rings at 2 a.m. and Ben’s long-lost college buddy, Andrew (Blair Witch Project survivor Joshua Leonard), stumbles in from deepest Mexico. Anna, who has never had the pleasure, watches the unexpected bromantic action with grim incredulity. Aggressively loud, demonstrative, and hairy, Andrew is not quite Sacha Baron Cohen, but he seems a credible representation of Ben’s id.
Reuniting an uptight married man with a footloose old pal, Lynn Shelton’s third feature offers a (much) more extreme version of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, also a sort of buddy movie, also shot in Seattle. In this case, the lost weekend is steeped in sexual anxiety. Friday night, Ben has to retrieve merry Andrew from a house called “Dionysus”—home to a bi cutie (the director herself) and an omnisexual assortment of roisterers. No orgies, but plenty of stoned dancing. Anna, who has prepared her signature pork chop dinner, sits home alone. She stews; Ben gets stewed. (Everything they do . . .) Prompted by news of an amateur porn festival—sponsored by a local alt-weekly—Ben finds himself proposing to co-star with show-off Andrew in a mad art project, dude-on-dude action, totally straight, yet somewhere “beyond gay.” Maybe they’ll be famous. The only problem: Just who is going to bone whom?
Having thus invested its protagonists in a game of “chicken,” played to justify their respective life choices, Humpday delivers some excellent situation comedy. Mutatis mutandis, the scene where Andrew and Anna have a get-acquainted drink and Andrew inadvertently exposes Ben’s boastful lie that his wife has signed off on their “project” is pure Honeymooners. (Bang, zoom, straight to the moon!) Ben can’t tell Anna why he wants to have sex with Andrew, only that it’s very, very important to him. And, terrified that Ben might think he really did have a yen, Andrew can only sigh, “I wish I was more gay.” Of course. Just as Brüno is more of a comment on celebrity culture than the love (or hate) that dare not speak its name, Humpday is actually less a queer comedy than a satiric view of macho. Appreciative as Shelton may be of her dudes, she has another agenda. Each in his own way, the guys have been freaked by a manifestation of assertive female sexuality—although the term “pussy-whipped” is never used.
Utterly functional, Humpday is a movie of close camera placement and seemingly improvised dialogue. Everything is “awesome” unless it’s “weird”—which is how it feels when the dudes meet for their tryst, set up the camera, and strip to their boxers. “We need to let our bodies take over,” one hazards. With everything building up to the spectacle of two (straight) guys getting it on, Humpday is ultimately about itself. Shelton claims that she contrived an open ending. What happens? Don’t ask, I won’t tell. Suffice it to say that, last seen beating their midriffs like apes, Ben and Andrew confront the fear but not the desire.