What do we expect of comedians? To make us laugh, obviously. To make us think? Sometimes. George Carlin moved from being a slick nightclub style comedian in his early days to a more anti-establishment voice. Sometimes comedians move the other way, they become more about the laughs and less about a clever take on the world. This is more or less where Sacha Baron Cohen is with his latest movie GRIMSBY.
In ALI G INDAHOUSE (2002), BORAT (2006) and BRUNO (2009) it could be said that the characters he played always had some satirical point to make. When he played Ali G and Borat on television and film, Baron Cohen chose the device of ambushing unsuspecting dupes in character. Ali G and Borat had a limited world-view and Baron Cohen would use their apparent innocence and lack of sophistication to draw out real life interview subjects and and expose the contradictions and darkness in their point of view. This is a reality-show version of cringe comedy that some people regard as unfair because it relies on the interviewee being the patsy of a set up. (God knows what line of super-persuasive chat producers had to come up with to get those release forms signed.) Bruno, Borat and Ali G were all retired because the public became too familiar with the characters and Baron Cohen lost the element of surprise.
In GRIMSBY (also known as The Brothers Grimsby in some quarters) Baron Cohen plays Nobby Butcher, a football hooligan and father of 11. The ambush comedy is gone. This is a straight-down-the-line spy action spoof. Nobby is a poorly educated man who loves his family and football. His greatest regret is that he was separated with his younger brother Sebastian during childhood. Unbeknownst to Nobby, Sebastian has become MI6’s top spy. Sebastian is everything that Nobby isn’t; intelligent, capable, well-travelled and in top physical condition. It has been Nobby’s life quest to reunite with brother Sebastian (Mark Strong). When he eventually tracks him down, Nobby ruins a carefully planned top secret operation. Sebastian is accused of being a double agent and goes on the run. The only way he can clear his name is with the dubious help of his long-lost brother.
Director Louis Leterrier whose work includes, UNLEASHED (2005), THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008), CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010) as well as two of the Transporter films delivers some amazing action sequences here, far above the standard required of a comedy. The flash-backs to young Nobby and Sebastian’s life as orphaned children are also better done than is usual for the genre. These scenes don’t fit comfortably alongside the barrage of crass sight gags and crude sexual slapstick that make up most of the film’s laughs.
Critics have called the comedy juvenile and over-the-top and indeed there are gallons of bodily fluids spraying everywhere. I wasn’t too bothered. I seem to remember all of Baron Cohen’s other films had plenty of schoolyard smut and tastelessness. That said, there is nothing clever and satirical going on here. It’s base level, but it made me laugh. Mark Strong plays through all the indignities visited upon his character. He’s not funny but he’s game for anything. The rest of the international cast is largely wasted, including Isla Fisher, Ian McShane, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Gabourey Sibide, Ricky Tomlinson and Johnny Vegas.
GRIMSBY is a non-demanding piece of entertainment. Those who expect Baron Cohen to say more comedically will be disappointed. Those who think genitalia props and inappropriate insertions are hilarious, will find this laugh-out-loud funny. (2.5/5)
This review also appeared in AccessReel.com.