Directed by: Louis Letterier; Runtime: 83 minutes
As the creative mind behind Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen has a knack for tying irreverent humor to worthwhile topics, pushing the envelope with jabs taken at social issues -- especially the people who perpetuate them -- alongside crude physical comedy. "Offensive" would be a good way to describe his approaches to the situations in his mockumentary style, yet there was the resemblance of substance underneath his ambush-style shenanigans, tackling sensitivities over foreigners, gender roles, and sexuality. With The Dictator, Baron Cohen sprinted away from those mockumentary trappings, yet kept the relevant commentary in his more overtly scripted political parody. Now, he's presented the ecstatically vulgar spy comedy The Brothers Grimsby, which evades most of the satirical targeting from his prior films yet holds onto the overblown and crass humor, even dialing it up several degrees to compensate for it. Continuing a steady decline in quality alongside a steady incline in the outlandishness of his antics, Baron Cohen's latest falls flat amid its zany stumble through espionage, family reunions, and its take on salt-of-the-earth citizens.
There's little to The Brothers Grimsby beyond what's seen in the trailer: it's the story of two brothers who were separated at a young age, one whom was whisked away to live with a wealthy family and another that was left to grow up in the foster system. The child who wasn't adopted, Nobby (Baron Cohen), has lived in a lowbrow state since their separation 28 years ago, growing up into a rabid soccer fan who's sired nearly a dozen children with his wife (Rebel Wilson). The other, Sebastian (Mark Strong), grew up into a slick professional super-spy and assassin for MI6, so it's understandable that Nobby hasn't been able to locate him in all these years. That is, until some information randomly falls into the Grimsby resident's lap, sending him across the world to find his brother. After Nobby interferes with one of his brother's high-stakes missions, however, the pair set off on a cat-and-mouse chase involving the target of Sebastian's mission, forcing the witless Nobby to toughen up and adjust to the world of espionage in a very short timeframe.
Maybe it's due to the absence of the mockumentary style and the direct satire -- there's no shortage of tackiness in Sacha Baron Cohen's prior works -- but the amount of overblown humor in The Brothers Grimsby dramatically overburdens its spy-thriller premise. Baron Cohen's screenwriting team, consisting of Bruno's Peter Baynham and Zootopia's Phil Johnston, likely believe that they're squeezing genuine laughs out of pushing the envelope with how vulgar they can make the oddities of the brothers' globe-trotting, when in fact these efforts stick out like sore thumbs for trying much too hard to get groaning, uneasy chuckles out of the audience. Mostly, in Grimsby, that involves bodily fluids and genitalia used in self-indulgent yet uninspired ways, taking similar gags found in the sequels to Ace Ventura and City Slickers and jacking up the obscenity many, many notches. This R-rated absurdity might "go there" while others wouldn't dare, propelled by fireworks launched from odd places on the body, African animal mating, and the spreading of AIDS, but it only has shock value going for it.
Underneath all that lies a brotherly spy-thriller scenario that's barely functional enough to get Nobby and Sebastian between locations, hampered by doubt over how the brothers actually get reunited and their ability to push forward afterwards. Mark Strong charismatically fills the role of the polished 007-ish Sebastian, whose deep voice and sharp eyes naturally convey the kind of weathered, cold personality one imagines of an aged espionage archetype. Next to him fumbles a mutton chop-wearing Baron Cohen, playing up a daft, unlikable rendition of a penniless sports nut who becomes that kind of predictable burden for his brother that'll constantly hinder their movement, either by physically tripping up the suave spy or fiddling with his gadgets. With them hobbling together, The Brothers Grimsby moves a tad like a Bourne or Bond flick during bits of action and seduction -- a hokey Sean Connery accent amplifies that at one point -- but there isn't enough to the suspense to appreciate things on that level. Tense sequences from a first-person videogame-like perspective may spice things up, but as an overall thriller, this is a non-starter.
Really, it doesn't work all that well to lump the Louis Leterier-directed The Brothers Grimsby together with other spoofs, such as Austin Powers or Paul Feig's Spy. All of 'em have their ridiculousness and their scattered shots taken at the genre, but, considering the alternatives, the latest from the mind of Sacha Baron Cohen actually plays the government and espionage elements reasonably straight. Even the global threat that Sebastian and MI6 ultimately try to halt has a shred of genuine meaning underneath it, a global agenda that directly attacks the well-being of common, pennies-on-the-dollar folks like those of Nobby's family and friends in Grimsby. Unfortunately, it also relies on the foolishness of this everyman to complicate matters and unintentionally solve problems, while also bequeathing him with certain abilities -- most especially his accuracy with a gun -- that exaggerate how preposterous it all becomes. The Brothers Grimsby ends up being the kind of forced, tone-deaf farce that makes one better appreciate the more covert successes of like-minded efforts that came before it.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 7/18/2016