Groups uncertain on ‘Bruno’ response

Activists, pundits still grappling with satire

Universal launches its Sacha Baron Cohen pic “Bruno” today, and various activists and industry pundits are grappling with one key question: How do you respond to a satire whose intent is to offend across the board?

In the weeks leading up to the pic’s release, gay-rights orgs expressed concern.

The key target of the film is U.S. homophobes, but the stereotype of a flaming gay man is a central joke in the pic. And along the way, “Bruno” also hits Bubbas, born agains, Asian flight attendants, ultimate fighting fans, personal publicists, plus Israelis and Palestinians. The notion of celebrity activism is skewered, with Bono and Elton John among those participating in the skewering.

The pic has even raised alarms among some Austrians, although in their case it’s hard to tell what’s worse — the references to Hitler or Bruno’s yellow lederhosen.

When Fox released “Borat” in 2006, government reps from Kazakhstan seemed to vacillate between protest and going along with the joke.

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“Borat” also faced a bevy of lawsuits when it was released, and the same fate appears to be in the offing for “Bruno.” A Lancaster, Calif., woman filed a lawsuit in May claiming that she was severely injured in the hubbub when Baron Cohen, in character, appeared at a charity bingo tournament. NBC Universal has called the suit “completely baseless.”

While the comic has been relentless in promotional stunts for the movie, appearing in outrageous outfits at premieres in Los Angeles and Europe, it also got Van Nuys, Calif., high school officials in trouble with their superiors at the L.A. Unified School District when they allowed the school’s name to be used in a “Bruno” photo layout for GQ.

Regarding “Bruno,” Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs for the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said, “It is really hard to judge this movie as just a single movie. It is 90 minutes of individual sketches.”

Some scenes worked and others fell flat, he said.

The key, he said, is context. That can be taken different ways. Among the options is that watercooler talk will focus on the most salacious scenes, or that individual parts of the pic will be cited and reinforce stereotypes. Moreover, the movie comes as the sting of election losses on same-sex marriage and gay adoption is still raw.

“It will be shown in places where gay people have incredible challenges, in places where gay people have absolutely no protections,” he said.

Universal invited GLAAD to screen the movie in late April, and while there were funny moments and moments that fell flat, Robinson said, there also were scenes that provoked concerns. The org expressed such in a letter to the studio.

Among them was a scene in which Bruno is in a hot tub with other gay men — one of whom is about to be engaged in a sex act — while holding his adopted African toddler, dubbed a “gayby.” “If I want to have fun, I want to have him with me,” Bruno says.

Last month, when the pic was rolled out at media screenings in Los Angeles, that scene was still in.

Universal is saying little beyond a statement that defends its depictions of stereotypes as satire. “Bruno uses provocative comedy to powerfully shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia,” says the statement adding that the pic “forces both the people Bruno meets and the audience itself to challenge their own stereotypes, preconceptions and discomforts.” One scene featuring LaToya Jackson was removed “out of respect for the Jackson family,” according to Universal.

More than anything, what “Bruno” does is test the boundaries of what it means to be a gay fashion journalist.

The oft-asked fashion journalist question of “Who are you wearing?” may forever elicit the image of Bruno asking it of an unsuspecting Ron Paul, who replies, “I don’t even know.” Then Bruno hits on him.

USC professor Joe Saltzman, director of the Norman Lear Center’s Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project, just completed a study on the depiction of gay journalists through some 35 TV shows and 125 films — including “Bruno.”

He noted that Bruno fits a history of stereotypes, in which gay characteristics are a source of derision of buffoonery “on a superficial level.”

“The difference,” Saltzman said, “is you are laughing with Bruno rather than at Bruno, and this strategic difference makes Bruno a more acceptable gay journalist.”

Ultimately, the bandwagon effect is likely to shape perception: If “Bruno” turns out to be a critical and commercial hit, the reaction could be “Have a sense of humor!” If not, there’ll probably more people out there shocked, shocked, shocked at Bruno’s boorish behavior.

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