After I watched Bruno, I left the theater desperately praying to gays, blacks, Jews, Arabs, babies, Baptists, and God for forgiveness. Then I stood in line at the Shake Shack for 45 minutes because drinking alcohol felt too dirty and it seemed the wholesomeness of a milkshake was all that could purge my soul.
Disclaimer: I am not a prude. In fact, I went to see Bruno because, frankly, trashiness often beats classiness when it comes to my entertainment choices. For a 24-year-old girl, I believe I am fairly solid on the tawdry bromance list: Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, I Love You, Man, and Superbad. Some I enjoy more than others, but I usually don’t mind them. I knew that some Christian organizations thought Bruno a “disgusting, abhorrent movie,” but I assumed they would attach the same warning to every movie I watched, so I blithely went.
And was revulsed.
I realize that Bruno’s humor has a point – shattering political correctness, forcing us to confront our own prejudicial niceties – so the thought kept nagging me: What makes Bruno different from those other crude movies?
The difference is that while those other movies humanize the world’s weirdos, Sacha Baron Cohen’s humor dehumanizes people – and not just a “type” of person but a real person who sits down trusting that the interviewer will show him as he is. Cohen doesn’t just expose prejudice but manipulates it, twisting real three-dimensional people into ugly, one-dimensional caricatures. Take the climactic scene, where he whips people up into a gleeful hatred and then shoves what they hate in their faces, as the camera zooms in on every shade of horror. Of course the prejudice and the hate is already there, and yes, it’s ugly. But the way he teases it out of people – with no thought to their humanity and no grace for their weaknesses – dehumanizes them.
These other movies take the world’s weirdos and even while mocking them, make us see behind their shallowness and love them. I just watched Role Models to contrast the two. A sour jerk (Paul Rudd) and a dim-witted hottie (Seann William Scott) are forced to mentor 10-year-old jailbait (Bobb’e J. Thompson) and a severely socially-disabled young man (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But in the end, you see that the sour jerk has a begrudging unselfishness, the dim-wit has his own wisdom, the jailbait is sensitive and the socially backward kid has guts. It’s the same with Knocked Up, which helps us love a bong-loving loser, and 40 Year Old Virgin, which humanizes the lame guy who has never had sex.
I’ve said before that I think the very best satire comes from affection for the satirized – a realization that they don’t live up to their worth. Satire, especially the kind that bites the deepest and wounds the sharpest, should have some exhortatory affection behind it.
So yes, I felt sorry for Paula Abdul, because it is embarrassing enough to watch her even when she sort of knows what’s going on, and because apparently this experience scarred her for a year. And I felt sorry for Ron Paul, because I was frankly terrified that Bruno would rape him and because old, quirky statesmen deserve a little peace and respect.
And I felt sorry for the Alabama Christian pastor who tried his simplistic best to help Bruno change his sexual orientation. But I thought his forgiving response when the movie came out – that he hoped his interview would be used for good – reclaimed some of the humanity that Bruno took.