Editor’s Notes: The Brothers Grimsby opens in wide theatrical release this Friday, March 11th.
There was a brief moment in the early 21st century when Sacha Baron Cohen was the most interesting, vital and provocative comedian on the planet. Through his cult sketch comedy Da Ali G Show, Cohen carved a niche out of outrageously inappropriate interactions with unsuspecting members of the British establishment. Next came the stunning success of Borat, a mockumentary detailing a Kazakhstani delegate’s various misadventures across America, culminating in the rather unsuccessful courtship of Pamela Anderson. A worldwide phenomenon, Borat has since become one of the most iconic, memorable comedy characters ever devised. By far the riskiest Cohen project to date was 2009’s Brüno; savage fashion industry satire and seemingly perpetual instigator of controversy. His first foray into wholly scripted fare was haphazard caper The Dictator.
Crudely crass though they may be, Cohen’s previous efforts at least had a rightful target for the jokes to aim at, be it snobbery, prejudice or vacuous hedonism.
Throughout this expansive career, a fearless wit, uncompromised vision and impeccable prowess for characterisation has earnt Cohen a permanent place among the finest comedians in recent memory. He was able to take on accepted truths in an unprecedentedly clear-eyed manner. That is, however, until The Brothers Grimsby, a thoroughly mean-spirited affair failing to mask its innumerable shortcomings with lazy, tired shock-humour. It’s the antithesis of what Cohen’s great talent can achieve, and an infuriating feat of human indecency.
Set in Grimsby, a major industrial town in northern England (which this writer hears is actually quite nice), the often perplexingly wrong-headed action comedy stars Cohen as Norman “Nobby” Butcher, an unemployed football/soccer-if-you’re-incorrect hooligan whose prodigal brother Sebastian is, in fact, an MI6 agent. Who happens to look suspiciously like Mark Strong. Almost inevitably, Nobby finds himself on a mission to clear Sebastian’s name, travelling from London to South African to Brazil, in which the movie’s funniest situation presents itself: England have inexplicably reached the Football/Soccer World Cup. Even by Cohen’s absurdist standards, this feels like quite a stretch…
Crudely crass though they may be, Cohen’s previous efforts at least had a rightful target for the jokes to aim at, be it snobbery, prejudice or vacuous hedonism. The Brothers Grimsby instead dedicates much of its torturously ill-judged 83 minutes mocking the broadest possible stereotypes of lower-class English society. Generous readings of the film have posited it as a sly comment on such narrow-minded labelling, and a momentary monologue from Nobby hints at subversion, yet this is immediately undercut by the Grimsby locals’ astonishing ineptitude. Cohen might pretend he’s making an important celebration of community spirit among disenfranchised masses, but why then must he ceaselessly mock the awful situations they have no say in? The entire project exhibits an unmistakeably malicious worldview bordering on contempt.
The Brothers Grimsby instead dedicates much of its torturously ill-judged 83 minutes mocking the broadest possible stereotypes of lower-class English society.
Louis Letterier’s direction manages to be both frenetic and utterly lifeless, his experience with action all but forgotten for seizure-inducing fight scenes lacking in even an ounce of craftsmanship. Entire action set-pieces will be immediately forgotten once the end credits roll; perhaps not an overtly bad thing in this case. Elsewhere, the staging of frequently improvised dialogue scenes follows fundamental shot-reverse-shot thinking (or lack thereof) to a slavish degree.
The movie only awakens from its otherwise slumberous existence when Cohen decides to unleash his customary raucous stunts. The already infamous “Elephant Scene” is permanently etched onto this viewer’s mind, every thought plagued with these graceful creatures’ evident phallic stamina. It has to be seen to be believed. Or not, take your pick.
The Brothers Grimsby can be aptly defined by the otherwise perfunctory role played by Isla Fisher, a greatly underserved actor and Cohen’s real-life partner. The most prominent female protagonist is here used for arrhythmic exposition, unnecessary romantic interest and nothing else of already-questionable merit. Her pitiful role is a perfect microcosm of the artless garbage around her: ridiculous, punishingly unfunny and completely behind the times.
The Brothers Grimsby is a thoroughly mean-spirited affair failing to mask its innumerable shortcomings with lazy, tired shock-humour. It’s the antithesis of what Cohen’s great talent can achieve, and an infuriating feat of human indecency.