Another Bastille Day passes with fireworks in France, political turmoil in Italy and a romantic comedy topping the American box office. This year, though, the romcom in question is not a grand marnier soufflé of warm, fluffy intoxication but a raw, slightly awkward, pas de deux between a self-obsessed fashion journalist and the klutzy Lutz (Gustaf Hammarsten), his assistant’s assistant.
Yes “Brüno” is a scathing, and occasionally mean-spirited, indictment of superficial celebrity culture (who can forget Paula Abdul sitting on a Mexican worker saying how vital she finds her humanitarian work?) but it’s also a tender homage to one of western civilization’s more enduring plot formulas. The redemption of an egotist by a devoted, sympathetic partner has been the staple of romantic comedies from “Taming of the Shrew” to “Roman Holiday” and behind “Brüno’s” radical unscripted reality filming techniques lies a simple story in which dogged love overcomes many obstacles to finally triumph.
No matter what fate brings to the protagonists — prison, chat shows, Hollywood ostracism — Lutz is (at times literally) chained to Brüno (played by Sacha Baron Cohen who is, full disclosure, an old friend). He endures every minor rejection until, seemingly past the brink of acceptance, he is brutally rejected once more. Lutz’s outburst at this point is not surprising to an audience who has seen his blatant attachment to the impossible and implausible Brüno but is notable not least because it is one of the few times that Brüno actually listens to what he’s being told.
Brüno and the audience are distracted from Lutz by Brüno’s ongoing quest for celebrity. Giving up on Hollywood he heads to “Middle Earth” to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, including Forward columnist Yossi Alpher. He arranges to interview Ayman Abu Aita, a “terrorist” he hopes will kidnap him to bring global publicity. Ironically Aita, a former member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is now an elected representative of Fatah and committed to non-violence and he presented far less of a personal threat to Baron Cohen than the ultra Orthodox Jews who chased him through the streets objecting to Brüno’s skimpy take on their black coat costume.
Unlike most romcoms, love in “Brüno” has to overcome not only individual reluctance and communal disapproval but also profound legal hurdles. The climactic scene is, in good romcom style, a final confrontation where true love finally blossoms albeit in an ultimate fighting cage. Hundreds of men and women who have come to see two almost-naked men wrestle whistle, yell and hurl their disapproval at having to watch two gay men kissing but even in the face of that, and Brüno’s metamorphosis into Straight Dave, love triumphs. Shortly afterward we see an officer of the law, who is slightly more self-reflective than the vitriolic crowd, express legal disapproval: “I don’t marry two men or two women.”
For the film to work the comedy must come on the one hand from the painfully malleable superficiality of those in thrall to media publicity, like the father who, when asked whether his child would be prepared to play with “lit phosphorus” said “yes, he loves it.” On the other hand comedy comes from watching people struggle with their discomfort, or just embrace that discomfort, in the face of an obviously gay man. Either way, the film upholds the substantial over the ephemeral and gay rights over homophobia. It has to for the romance to come out right.
So, because of the dictates of the genre, gay rights are important, but why do we care about Lutz the person? He’s a doormat, a co-dependent and looks like a poor man’s Stellan Skarsgard!
We care because it’s his view of the world that triumphs in the end. For better or for worse, the domesticated view of romantic and family love that he espouses is largely the one that the film chooses for the happy ending the genre demands. The fact that he is rocking the crib as part of a family unit is more important than that he’s using a dildoed exercise bike to do so! And, of course, GLAAD will be pleased to note that Lutz is a long way from Brüno and his uncomfortably stereotypical flaming fashion queen persona. For all those who say, like Homer Simpson, “I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals FLAMING!” there are at least two significant gay characters in the film and one of them is deliberately not flaming.
So romcoms are boring and heterosexual? Ich don’t think so.
Dan Friedman can be contacted at email@example.com
Dan Friedman is the executive editor of the Forward. But when he’s not doing that, he’s writing a book about the rock band Tears for Fears.