Sacha Baron Cohen has a particular brand of humor. Imagine a Venn diagram of scatological humor, sexual humor, and race/religious humor. The movies Cohen has written and starred in have a tendency to sit right at the center of that diagram. His latest, “The Brothers Grimsby,” which is directed by Louis Leterrier focuses less on that third circle, but makes up for it by amping up jokes in the first two.
I think that there is a lot of “Borat” and “Bruno” and “The Dictator” that is funny, and that Cohen actually has (potentially important) ideas he wants to explore. There are other parts that make me cringe, but that’s Cohen’s thing – his comedy regularly includes moments that he assuredly finds amusing for the reactions it receives beyond laughter (see: cringing). “The Brothers Grimsby” is entirely about the reactions beyond laughter, because very little of the comedy film is actually funny.
“The Brothers Grimsby” attempts to meld a spy film with a comedy, giving us a great spy, Sebastian (Strong), and a bumbling oaf who finds himself in the middle of a mission, Nobby (Cohen). In this case the two brothers have been separated for nearly three decades with Sebastian having gone to foster parents after their biological parents died and Nobby living in the depressed city of Grimsby.
Much to Sebastian’s distress, Nobby finds his younger brother and attempts to reestablish their relationship. This destroys Sebastian’s MI6 mission and threatens the world. Really though the entire thing is just an excuse for the attempts at sexual and scatological humor.
Again, while that sort of humor can be done in ways that are funny, “The Brothers Grimsby” completely fails at it. Each joke seems worse than the last one, and when the two brothers find themselves needing to hide amongst a herd of elephants, the joke isn’t even offensive, it’s just plain dumb. And then, it keeps going and only gets worse.
Assuredly there is a segment of the teenage audience that will laugh out loud at the joke, but the vast majority of those who are able to drink legally will find little to no humor in it.
Another major disappointment with “Grimsby” is that it doesn’t do the spy/action stuff well either. The film, purposefully, does not ape the style of a Bond film, even if Sebastian is supposed to be a Bond-like character. Instead, the biggest action sequence—which occurs early on in the film—is done from the perspective of Sebastian (or a contact lens he wears). While I generally dislike quick cuts, close-ups, and handheld cameras in action scenes, this particular viewpoint amps up the annoying tendencies of all three of those things. It is just about impossible to figure out what is going on and whatever takes place does so for way too long.
The movie fills out its cast with a solid group of actors including Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane, Isla Fisher, and Barkhad Abdi. Why exactly they appear though is unclear, particularly Fisher and McShane. They are more than criminally underutilized.
When Cohen is at his best, he asks us to look at our society, to contemplate how we see the world and how we view each other. “Grimsby” attempts some of this by having Nobby and his family be so downtrodden, but rather than asking for an examination of how that group of individuals is treated versus anyone else, just makes a couple of jokes and moves on. There is nothing for the audience to use a moment for self-reflection and questioning.
I love Cohen’s ability to make an audience cringe, but it has to be backed by something, there has to be a reason behind it. “Brothers Grimsby” makes the audience cringe just for the sake of cringing. I definitely recommend watching “Borat” instead.
photo credit: Sony Pictures