When disappointments rack up, there comes a point where fans have to question whether the “comic genius” is really worthy of the label—and for Sacha Baron Cohen, The Brothers Grimsby will be that moment to take stock. A decade on from Borat, this generation’s Peter Sellers has delivered his third consecutive failure as writer-producer-star, while his 2006 opus now increasingly looks like a blip made in between the cash-in of Ali G Indahouse and the scattershot Borat B-side Bruno. The Brothers Grimsby is Baron Cohen’s second fully scripted botch-job in a row after The Dictator, and by now the concern is real, that Baron Cohen’s post-Borat super-fame will forever prohibit him from returning to what he does best: largely improvised comedy made amongst an unsuspecting public.
In The Brothers Grimsby, Baron Cohen plays Nobby Butcher, a loutish Liam Gallagher type hailing from the English town of Grimsby, a giant sink estate of unemployables twinned with Chernobyl. When he reunites with his long-lost MI6 agent brother Sebastian (Mark Strong, here the focus of multiple bald gags, because that’s the level), Nobby becomes a wanted man, entangled in a global conspiracy to decimate the human race. His first big idea is to hide himself and Sebastian out in their hometown.
Just 83 minutes-long, The Brothers Grimsby bears the hallmarks of a severe edit. Considering that even Sony thought the project was weak sauce (per the Sony leaks, one studio exec thought the script “lazy and predictable”), you can imagine heavy cuts were made as a means of damage limitation. So actors like Tamsin Egerton are reduced to near-wordless cameos, and the already sparse plot is stripped to the bone. For example, the film doesn’t offer much of an explanation as to why Nobby and Sebastian have to hide out in Grimsby before heading to South Africa, and then Chile: Everything’s just streamlined down to set-pieces.
The sub-007 action sequences are headache-inducingly orchestrated by Louis Leterrier, though surprisingly the Transporter director does a more capable job with the comedy, not that there’s a great deal for him to work with in the first place. Baron Cohen is unfortunately one of the film’s bigger problems, his comic timing off and his accent forever wavering. When Mark Strong – here doing straight comedy for the first time—is funnier than the “comic genius” whose show this is supposed to be, then something is clearly wrong.
Baron Cohen’s surprise recent appearance at the Oscars as Ali G proved he hasn’t lost his knack for inducing belly laughs and for delivering cutting cultural commentary. He can be effective when he’s inhabiting a well-developed character, but Grimsby’s Nobby is too ill-defined a creation to be nearly as interesting or ripe for jokes as Baron Cohen’s best. The character is also out of date, the embodiment of boorish British “lad culture” circa 1996 as opposed to 2016, while the depiction of the working class as a coterie of boozers and scroungers feels lazily ripped from conservative press headlines. It’s a weak, clichéd basis for a comic scenario.
Let nobody say Baron Cohen doesn’t know how to throw down the gross-out gauntlet, though. No one else in comedy, mainstream or otherwise, is creating scenarios like those found in The Brothers Grimsby. Which is not necessarily a compliment: Grimsby features some truly rancid gags, involving incest, elephant vaginas and an HIV-infected Daniel Radcliffe (not the real Daniel Radcliffe). The problem isn’t just that these go beyond gross-out into the realm of morbidity, but that Baron Cohen has seemingly forgotten the reason he used to employ shock as a comedic tool. Borat, and to a lesser extent Bruno, were outrageous but still smart enough to reveal something about Baron Cohen’s targets. Here there are bestial bukkake jokes just because.
A few of The Brothers Grimsby’s gags do land, and land well. Many of the best ones come at the expense of Strong’s Sebastian, a James Bond figure transplanted into a movie where his very super-ness is routinely scuppered by an idiot sidekick. This line of comedy is more tolerable because it finds Baron Cohen punching up rather than down for a change. Some of his other targets are less comfortably deserving. One could argue that Donald Trump has earned his stripes as the butt of a bilious Baron Cohen wisecrack, but what on Earth did Daniel Radcliffe do to piss the comic off this much?
It’s not always easy to tell in The Brothers Grimsby what Baron Cohen is making light of, or why. Take Grimsby’s deprived inhabitants—are they figures of fun, or objects of defiance in a society that’s given up on them? Or the scene in which Nobby, standing in for Sebastian, is tasked with seducing Annabelle Wallis’s femme fatale and mistakenly goes for the wrong woman, a South African maid played by Gabourey Sidibe: What’s the joke here? The mere fact that the wrong woman happens to be not blonde and beautiful, but overweight and black? If so, then Baron Cohen has become little better than the figures of prejudice he once tried to expose, and about as edgy as Adam Sandler.
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Phil Johnston
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Isla Fisher, Tamsin Egerton, Annabelle Wallis, Barkhad Abdi, Gabourey Sidibe
Release Date: March 11, 2016