The Brothers Grimsby stumbles in its attempt to mix action and comedy
Sacha Baron Cohen’s newest movie delivers on shock-based humor, not much else
The Brothers Grimsby
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Rebel Wilson, Mark Strong
If you’ve ever seen a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, you should have an idea of what to expect when you walk into a theater to see his newest film, The Brothers Grimsby. The comedian and actor is known for pushing the boundaries of good taste with his work, and this is no exception. To describe some of the movie’s cruder jokes as obscene would be an understatement, and in fact, when I went to a screening in February, Baron Cohen said that it had only been a week since the film had been edited down enough to not be given an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America.
At this point, offensive jokes are to be expected from Sacha Baron Cohen. But what does seem new coming from him is The Brothers Grimsby’s alleged genre: spy-action. The movie centers around Carl ‘Nobby’ Butcher (played by Baron Cohen), a “football hooligan” (for the Americans out there: soccer fan) from Grimsby, a town in England notorious for its middle class residents and rowdy football fans. He’s married to, in Baron Cohen’s own words, “the Kim Kardashian of Grimsby,” played by Rebel Wilson, and has a happy family with several (quite profane) children. Nobby is searching for his long-lost twin brother, Sebastian, and when he gets word that Sebastian has been found, he races to London to reunite with him.
It turns out that in the years since the brothers were separated, Sebastian (played by Mark Strong) had become a Bond-esque hitman for MI6. And when Nobby finds him, he inadvertently screws up his brother’s mission, leading MI6 to declare Sebastian rogue. From there, the movie is essentially James Bond and Austin Powers without his powers on the run from the government. Oh, and also there’s a secret plot to destroy the world that they have to stop while being hunted down, because of course there is. It’s Mission Impossible meets The Hangover, but worse than whatever the phrase “Mission Impossible meets The Hangover” just invoked in your mind.
The Brothers Grimsby is at its best when it’s in full comedy mode. In one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Nobby is tasked with seducing a woman to get information from her, but winds up mixing up the targets and hitting on a maid, played by Gabourey Sidibe. When the woman he’s actually supposed to be pursuing arrives, Nobby thinks that she’s the maid who he just called to unclog his toilet, and a great sequence of situational irony ensues in which the woman thinks she’s flirting with him and talking dirty as he describes the size, girth, and consistency of his … feces. Another scene, involving elephants, is not only far too grotesque to describe in print but also too wonderful to reveal.
These parts make me wish I could have seen more of Baron Cohen’s joke ideas (not to mention more screen time for Rebel Wilson and Gabourey Sidibe). Sadly, Grimsby is hurt by its apparent need to hit the required plot points of a generic spy movie. The action sequences are done well enough, shot from a novel first-person viewpoint that invokes a kinetic sense of live-action Call of Duty. But for The Brothers Grimsby to truly work, it would have needed to more successfully blend its twin elements of action and comedy, allowing them to play off of and drive one another. And because the spy aspect of the narrative is played so straight, refusing to wink at the audience or acknowledge how generic it is, this meshing is never fully achieved.
Sacha Baron Cohen is known for his character work, for developing hilariously outlandish yet sympathetic personalities and refusing to break character when filming. But Nobby came across to me more as “just a character,” not a “Sacha Baron Cohen character.” This is probably intentional: Baron Cohen seems to be more focused now on making movies than on inhabiting a persona. But as a result (or perhaps for unrelated reasons), Nobby felt very thinly characterized to me, and I never found him particularly sympathetic. While the topical jokes he delivers, on subjects ranging from Bill Cosby to drug dealers on LinkedIn, were admittedly hilarious, they served to undermine Nobby as a character to me, further hindering any investment I might have had with the plot.
Now, The Brothers Grimsby is undeniably a fun movie. It takes some time to get going, and it isn’t for the faint of heart, but as the movie progressed, I found myself enjoying it more and more. It’s just that I hoped for a little bit more from Sacha Baron Cohen. The movie pushes the limits of the R rating, but it doesn’t feel like it has any particularly good reason for doing so. It often aims to shock, seemingly for shock’s sake, but it needs more than that to make an impact in a culture that has become a lot less timid about off-color humor since Borat made the nation gasp a decade ago. Sacha Baron Cohen should check out the Internet. I hear there are, like, no restrictions on there.