The first thing to know about “The Brothers Grimsby,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, is that it is a Sacha Baron Cohen film. The second thing to know is that elephant semen is a major plot point.
So is “The Brothers Grimsby” good? Bad? It’s a question I was forced to ask myself a lot as I cringed through 83 minutes of death and penis jokes. That depends on how you want to judge it. As a contribution to society, it’s awful. As a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, joining the ranks of Borat and Ali G, it’s okay. And most importantly, as a movie in general, it’s pretty mediocre, and, no matter how hard it tries, totally unoriginal.
“The Brothers Grimsby” is the story of long lost brothers: Nobby (Cohen), who stayed in the poor, industrial town they were born in; and Sebastian (Mark Strong), who was adopted out by a wealthy London couple, only to become a secret government agent. Twenty-Eight years later, Nobby is a stereotype dreamed up by someone who wants to cut welfare funding. He has nine children, for whom chemistry class is “Breaking Bad.” He has a tattoo over his chest that reads “200016” (“No, it’s 2000 — 16,” he says when Sebastian tries in vain to point out the error). His greatest passion, excluding soccer, is tracking down his little brother, for whom he’s erected a shrine.
Then one day he does, and heads off to London to crash the gala for an organization called “World Cure,” which his brother is expected to attend. Turns out Sebastian’s there for an assassination, but the hug planted on him by Nobby causes a misfire, and he shoots a wheelchair-bound-AIDS-inflicted-Middle-Eastern-Peace-Symbol/child (whew) instead. Next thing you know, the two are on the run, while also trying to prevent a global conspiracy that could kill millions.
Cohen’s basic comic theory is that if you do the stupidest, most offensive things possible in any given situation long enough, it’ll be funny. But in a satiric spy-thriller of the sort “Grimsby” wants to be, more structure is needed. In its absence, what’s left is a rote, trope-filled and character-empty story, easily diverted and unsure of what exactly it wants to mock. The only thing distracting the audience from its ordinariness is how mean it delights in being.
The real tragedy of the movie’s failure is that it could’ve been good. Interesting, even. Underneath the cheap laughs, Cohen’s trying for commentary. But in its current state, it’s like a conspiracy theorist who was right that one time. Lines with great potential, like when Nobby says of his newfound love for firearms that they “completely divorce you from the responsibility of your actions,” are abandoned for lazier points, leaving the audience to wonder how a guy who’s otherwise an idiot said something so uncharacteristically intelligent.
One of the movie’s running gags, and its blatantly worst, is that Nobby is attracted to fat women. That’s it. You have to wonder at the motives of actresses like Gabourey Sidibe to participate in a film in which their only role is to be so obviously repellant to everybody except for the uncultured idiot, thus serving to cement class lines and false body standards at the same time. I was offended by it on many levels, but perhaps the most relevant to this venue is that fat jokes are pretty much the most uninspired way to be mean in modern joke writing. This is not bravely incorrect in its politics; it’s just laughing at another’s expense.
The thing is, I did laugh at that joke. And at the homophobic jokes, and at the potty humor. The comedian John Oliver recently said of Donald Trump that “There’s a part of me that genuinely likes the guy. It’s a part of me I hate, but it’s a part of me,” and that sentiment sums up pretty well how I felt leaving “Grimsby.” Maybe that’s Cohen’s truest, greatest strength, that he provides a venue for the parts of yourself you otherwise wouldn’t admit to. But if you, like me, would rather not leave the theater with an identity crisis and a boatload of guilt, watch another movie. There are plenty funnier ones that manage to do so while being — dare we say it? — kind.