If the latest Sacha Baron Cohen provocation, Brüno, seems less sadistic than Borat, it’s because wagging one’s gay butt in the face of potentially violent homophobes is not just aggressive, it’s borderline suicidal. I mean: Brüno puts the moves on hunters with guns. In The Hurt Locker, journalist Chris Hedges is quoted saying war can be a drug, “a potent and often lethal addiction”—and Baron Cohen is a genuine comic guerrilla, charging right to the front lines of the war against prejudice and sanctimony. What’s open to debate is whether he’s also a comic gorilla—a cheap-shot artist, a mauler.
Is Brüno riotous? Yes, more so than Borat, in which Baron Cohen’s targets were ducks in a barrel and largely undeserving of ridicule. He doesn’t aim much higher here, but his tricks are more inventive and his butts—so to speak—more defended. The movie centers on a doomed quest: After being “schwarz-listed” in the European fashion industry, the flaming, childishly oblivious Austrian exhibitionist flies to Hollywood, determined to become a movie star. The people he appalls with his idiocy and, well, gayness are ostensibly not in on the joke—although you can’t always be sure. To get the most out of Brüno, you have to suspend disbelief and regard the movie as a hard-R-rated Candid Camera, to accept that, pace Eminem, the celebrities and ordinary folk Baron Cohen punks are being driven to actual sputtering rages.
Are we made to feel superior to said butts? But(t) of course! And some of them have it coming. I loved watching (through my fingers) as Brüno tried to manipulate right-wing moralist Ron Paul into taking it up the Hershey Highway for a gay sex tape. Nearly as excruciating are his earnestly arse-centric queries to a “former” homosexual who came to Christ and now deprograms other godless queers. If the focus-group audience stunned by Brüno’s naked gyrations on a talk-show pilot are relatively innocent, well, so are folks on Candid Camera. The good people in the audience of The Richard Bey Show have every reason to writhe as Brüno trots out his adopted African baby, “O.J.,” in a T-shirt reading GAYBY—but the prank is still a howl. A detour to the Middle East is off-topic, but what Jackass daredevil ever had the chutzpah to stride through an Israeli Orthodox neighborhood in a black hat, payos, and short shorts? Blandly remarking to a seething Islamist leader outside a Lebanese refugee camp that his “King Osama looks like a dirty wizard,” Baron Cohen even courts Jewish martyrdom.
Underlying all these gags—the funny, the crude, the funny and crude—is a hard truth: Flagrant gay behavior drives a lot of heteros insane. To be honest, I’m uncomfortable watching two guys with tongues down each other’s throats, too, but at least I know the problem is mine, not theirs. When the hushed, arty Brokeback Mountain came out, its couplings set against purple mountains majesty, many right-wing commentators announced that they couldn’t bear to watch such abominations. To them—and to those who’ll see Brüno because it’s the latest gross-out comedy sensation—Baron Cohen is proclaiming, “Suck on this!”
Lynn Shelton’s marvelous chamber comedy Humpday butts up against the same sort of taboos as Brüno, and in its fumbling, semi-improvised way, it’s equally hilarious and even more subversive. It’s a dramatic neutron bomb, exploding inner lives while leaving social structures intact. Seattle city planner Ben (Mark Duplass) is living peacefully, somewhat snoozily, with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), when his wanderlust-ing college buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard) shows up at his door—a threat to his domesticity but not in ways immediately apparent. When the next day Ben goes to pick up Andrew from a bohemian bisexual enclave he stumbled into (a sign on the door reads DIONYSUS), he ends up stoned and with a sexual-revolutionary idea: For a local amateur-porn fest, he’ll make a video with “two straight guys boning”—i.e., him and Andrew.
The tension in Humpday is whether these old pals will, in the sober light of day, go through with their art project—and how they’ll justify it to Anna, who’s having a hard enough time getting Ben to bone her, even when they’re readying a nursery. Shelton (a dishy lesbian in the Dionysus scene) depicts the sexual twilight zone of male buddydom with satire and sympathy. Humpday is a bigger threat to homophobes than Brüno because there aren’t any flamers on display. Gay, straight, bi—it’s all shades of gray. Maybe Ben and Andrew’s manly wrasslin’ has no sexual component. Maybe it has a lot—or a little. Shelton gives every epithet a devilish spin, from the freely tossed f-word to the men’s sad realization that they’re “pussies.” I’d say this movie made me giggle all the way through—but that would make my laughter sound girlie. Which it might have been. Or not. I don’t know and neither will you.