Ass Man

Photo: Frank Ockenfels/Courtesy of Universal

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.

When you watch Public Enemies, you can taste how much Johnny Depp loves being a star and wearing wide-brim fedoras and firing Tommy guns at G-men. And I ask you: Who wouldn’t? Depp is happily in sync with his role: His John Dillinger loves being a celebrity, too. Dillinger breaks out of prison, and is soon dressed to the nines at a Chicago nightclub and thunderstruck by a luscious Marion Cotillard—who’s believably smitten back, even if her American accent sinks in the mid-Atlantic. He’s recklessly romantic in other ways, an independent operator in an age of coldhearted syndicates—a beautiful, dying breed.

If director Michael Mann has a moral point of view on Dillinger’s bank jobs—which get people killed—I couldn’t discern it. Instead, he does a halfhearted retread of his Heat motif: that Dillinger and agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), though on opposite sides, have a code of honor. Dillinger doesn’t shoot anyone in cold blood, while Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) cackles at his carnage. Purvis stands in contrast to cops who torture suspects and to image-mongering J. Edgar Hoover (a fatted, effeminate Billy Crudup). Mann jumps back and forth between Dillinger and Purvis, but Bale is so dull he kills any parallel in the cradle.

Public Enemies has incidental pleasures (its hi-def video palette is fascinatingly weird), but it’s only Depp’s sense of fun that keeps it from being a period gangster museum piece. After Michael Jackson’s death, I rewatched his video of “Smooth Criminal”—a gangster fantasia with rat-tat-tat hoofing and a touch of Guys and Dolls. It’s madly inventive, genre-bending, at once a study in urban paranoia and a tribute to the artist as outlaw-loner. Public Enemies has none of that originality and passion, and Mann can’t dance.

See Also
Brüno’s Greatest Fashion Hits
Why He Makes Us Proud of America
The Jokes He Told in Every Interview
Are We Laughing With Him or at Him?

Directed by Larry Charles.
Everyman Pictures. R.

Directed By Lynn Shelton.
Magnolia Pictures. R.

Public Enemies
Directed by Michael Mann.
Universal Pictures. R.

Ass Man