Universal’s ”Bruno,” the widely anticipated Sacha Baron Cohen docu-comedy opening in July, has been slapped with an NC-17 rating on its first submission to the Motion Picture Association of America because of numerous sexual scenes that the ratings board considers over the line, according to the studio releasing the film.
Among the objectionable scenes is one in which Bruno — a gay Austrian fashionista played by Baron Cohen — appears to have anal sex with a man on camera. In another, the actor goes on a hunting trip and sneaks naked into the tent of one of the fellow hunters, an unsuspecting non-actor.
A Universal spokesman confirmed the rating on Sunday, saying: "On its first submission the film did not receive an R but it is far too early to say that there is any struggle to get there as the process is only at its inception.”
Baron Cohen is accustomed to pushing boundaries. In his last hit film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the writer and actor orchestrated outrageous real-life situations that challenged anti-Semitic and other stereotypes.
With “Bruno,” Baron Cohen apparently goes even further, drawing a cutting comic edge that challenges homophobia and racism by embracing both. His method is a kind of cinema verite, drawing unsuspecting bystanders into outrageous situations, or provoking them to say outrageous things, and orchestrating NC-17 rated situations.
Individuals close to the film say that Baron Cohen, Bruno’s writer and star, is “experimenting” and still “finding the film,” and tested two different versions with audiences in the past week. Both screenings, they said, were very successful.
But Cohen needs to deliver an R-rated film to Universal, which will not consider releasing an NC-17 “Bruno,” according to an executive there.
The difference between an R and an NC-17 in terms of financial reward is vast. "Borat," which cost a piddling $18 million to make, took in $261 million in worldwide box office. Universal paid $42 million for the English-language rights to "Bruno," but will spend far more than that in marketing the film. Major Hollywood studios almost never release films with NC-17 ratings.
Cohen is currently appealing the decision while simultaneously struggling with cutting the film to suit the ratings board. But the ratings board, a secret panel of parents appointed by the studio-owned movie association, is notoriously inexact about what it requires to move from an NC-17 to an R.
Audiences saw 20 minutes of Cohen’s latest foray into high-wire comedy at the South by SouthWest festival this month.
In one scene showed at the festival, Bruno auditioned children for a subversive movie with a number of offensive acts. Clueless stage moms agreed to the increasingly absurd requirements set forth by the actor, including one woman admitting that her infant daughter could lose seven pounds in a week to fit the part.
Finally, Bruno told her about the scene, in which the child had to dress as a Nazi pushing someone into an oven.
In another scene shown at SXSW, Bruno appeared on a daytime program called "The Richard Bey Show," as a single father trying to find a boyfriend to help him raise his adopted black child. The audience, exclusively African-Americans, gave him an earful, revealing distaste for same-sex parenting that many Americans comfortably express.
Baron Cohen pushed the audience, saying: “The baby has a traditional African name — O.J." Then, he pushed them further through a series of explicit photographs showing Bruno with other men in various stages of undress while the baby sits nearby. He added: “He’s a real dick magnet."
Baron Cohen has butted heads with the MPAA before. “Borat” was given an NC-17 on its first go-round, and still ended up with a hilarious, outrageous scene in which he wrestled naked with his obese driver, ending up with his face in the man’s genitals and anus.
Apparently “Bruno” is even more outrageous than that. “He offends everybody,” said one executive. “But you laugh from the minute it starts. A guy like Sacha shoots what he wants, and then he negotiates.”
Another scene shows Bruno buying an African-American baby in order to become famous. The baby arrives in a cardboard box on the luggage carousel at an airport.
“Sacha is always redrawing the boundaries where you don’t expect them,” said one person close to the film. The humor, said this person, is meant to make viewers feel uncomfortable about their preconceived stereotypes, particularly as regards homosexuality and racism.
“It forces us to question our own discomfort when we are confronted with images that challenge our preconceptions about sexuality,” said this person, who declined to be identified.
The spokesman said that Baron Cohen had shot a lot of material, and would be able to cut it without a problem. “With the quantity of material available, I cannot foresee a problem,” said the spokesman. “It’s not even April and the film comes out July 10 so it’s nonsense to say there’s a struggle of any kind."
And the NC17 material? It will likely be used on a red-band, sealed DVD, to be released down the line.