Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedian of a few different stripes. You have the often overlooked, less bombastic, warm and quirky character actor who pops up in small roles in musicals or family films. More well known is the satirist, who immerses himself in his absurd personalities like Borat or Ali G, indulging at times in some low-brow humor and shock value, but also using his creations to tease out ignorance and closely guarded opinions from unsuspecting rubes. And then you have the Cohen who dispenses with his stealthily sharp wit, wholly embracing the over-the-top, gross-out humor that aims to offend and stir up headlines. This Cohen, the one lacking all the craft and talent that make him such an interesting personality, is the one you get in Grimsby.
While the sheer ludicrousness of some of Grimsby‘s set-pieces are entertaining in a juvenile ‘I-bet-my-parents-would-hate-this’ kind of way, the relentless cheap-shots and adolescent dick jokes fail to get you laughing and end up exhausting rather than entertaining. While there’s certainly a teenage audience who will enjoy jokes about elephant semen and Daniel Radcliffe getting AIDS, for everyone else Grimsby is one to stay clear of.
Grimsby (or The Brothers Grimsby for our American readers) is the tale of Nobby (a drunken hooligan played by Cohen) and Sebastian (Mark Strong’s lethal secret agent), two long lost brothers teaming up to reconnect and save the world. So essentially it’s the Sacha Baron Cohen-take on the wacky buddy-cop staple, with Strong as the no-nonsense badass and Cohen as the idiotic sidekick who gets in the way, but will no doubt end up saving the day by doing something stupid.
Plot-wise Grimsby is extremely safe, but it’s more than sufficient for its brand of humour, which revolves mostly around Nobby applying uncouth and vulgar solutions to the super-spy archetypes of Sebastian’s world. To call it an action-comedy would be a stretch, but the espionage backdrop does allow for a bit of action and scale to break up the “jokes.” Traditionally an action director, Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk) does try to have some fun in this space, injecting a few energetic, if low-key, action sequences here and there. Apparently inspired by some of the early footage seen from Hardcore Henry, Leterrier utilizes a creative first-person perspective for the more intense set pieces. It’s a little disorienting, but the gimmick works to keep you energized and visually interested whenever it pops up. Unfortunately, nobody is going to walk out this film talking about the action, so it’s hard not to feel like it’s probably wasted in a movie like Grimsby.
Grimsby aims to be a vehicle for a non-stop barrage of offensive dialogue and insane and disturbing setups, and in this it succeeds totally. Cohen spits out jokes at rapid-fire pace and the script goes to fittingly absurd places. Problem is, none of that necessarily translates to it being funny. While it’s impossible not to smirk at the sheer ridiculousness at some Grimsby’s gags, you’re generally laughing at the script rather than with it. But even this is rare, more often the unimaginative humour has you sitting po-faced as you are buffeted by dick joke after dick joke.
Sporadic as it is, there is some humor in Grimsby that can appeal to someone over the age of 14. Sprinkled throughout the overbearing script are a few quick and (comparatively) subtle snippets of dialogue that earn a wary laugh. It’s refreshing to have a few legitimately funny moments to catch your breath on after being worn-out by all the terrible ones. Sadly, such instances flash by and are quickly lost amongst having to watch Cohen suck poison out a prosthetic testicle, or whatever other comedic gems we are treated to.
To be fair, Cohen’s comedy has always been quite juvenile, but there was some magic to his characters when reflected off real people’s reactions that is utterly absent in contrived comedies like Grimsby. There’s a mild subversive nature to something like Borat, Ali G or Bruno, all exaggerated and vaguely offensive in their design, but it was with a purpose that confronted conservative views and laid bare deeply hidden prejudices. But here, fully scripted and in a vacuum, it’s the subject (in this case, the British lower-class) which becomes the joke and not the people who think they are better than it. In Grimsby Cohen doesn’t draw attention to those who would look down on the poor, he joins in, shitting all over them and arguing that people like Nobby really are the scum of the world. It’s mean-spirited and has you retrospectively asking if he really intended his previous successes as satire at all.
As poor as the result is, you can’t deny Cohen is having a ball as the moronic and unpleasant Nobby. He’s an actor that dives head first into his characters and milks them for all they’re worth. Sadly, in this case, the character is an offensive git who you’d have absolutely no desire to spend 83 minutes with. But he gives it his all nonetheless. Strong works well as the straight man to Nobby’s antics. He’s got the build and personality to pull off the whole unstoppable-MI6-agent shtick, and he’s not without a great sense of comedic timing. As a duo they have some chemistry, but the contrived script (see aforementioned references to elephant spunk and contaminated testicles) forces some truly horrid dialogue that stilts much of their banter beyond repair. It’s also a bit laughable to imagine Strong as Cohen’s younger brother, but that’s far from the least believable thing we see here, so I’m happy to let that one slide.
As childish and cringe-worthy as most of the humour is, Grimsby‘s crime isn’t that it pushes the envelope too far, it’s just tiring watching it try. What works in the film is scarcely more than adequate and what doesn’t is at best irritating and loud. And at its worst, Grimsby is simply uninspired and utterly forgettable. No doubt there are worse films out there you could watch, but at least they might be good for a laugh.