Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic template used to combine satire with unrestrained political incorrectness and jaw-dropping lewdness, while the whole thing was sugar-coated with disarming silliness. It’s a rich mix, from one of the edgiest comic filmmakers around. And that makes “Grimsby,” which comes close to being a warm-hearted comedy, something of a surprise.
Cohen started to ease off the satire in his writing with his previous starring vehicle — which he also directed — "The Dictator." In the new one, satire has been thrown out of the window altogether — and spoof has taken its place. It now seems as though Cohen has permanently abandoned the earlier shock tactic of imposing invented characters on an unwitting public, which gave both "Borat" and "Bruno" some of their most discomforting moments. And the pot shots on his chief target, American society, have all but disappeared.
So has Cohen gone soft? Not quite, considering that every other part of his comic armory remains intact – the willingness to shock and appall, the fearlessness, the ability to leave us in a loose-jawed heap. This simply feels like a holiday from controversy. There’s nothing grim about "Grimsby."
Cohen is Nobby Butcher, unemployed father of 11 and mad soccer fan, good-hearted but a bit of an oaf. With his mutton chop sideburns, limp hair and pot-belly, he looks like Oasis’s Liam Gallagher gone to seed. And there’s also another Gallagher in the film’s DNA – the family from "Shameless." When Nobby celebrates an England goal, it’s by putting a firework up his backside. He and girlfriend Lindsey (Rebel Wilson) don’t think twice about having sex in the middle of a furniture shop. And when he reprimands his son for smoking, the boy, who can’t be more than eight years old, replies, "I thought you just meant crack." These kids are terriers, with no guidance of note from the adults but plenty of love.
Nobby’s long lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) couldn’t be more different: posh, debonair, and an MI6 agent. And he’s quite the super-spy. If we’ve been wondering why director Louis Letterier of "Transporter" fame – and with no comedy in his CV – is handling this one (rather than long-term Cohen director Larry Charles), the extremely proficient and exciting action sequences provide one answer. As with other recent spy spoofs ("Kingsman: The Secret Service," for example), there seems to be an understanding here that visually the film needs to be up to scratch. Letterier keeps the story moving at a good clip and makes handsome use of his locations; not surprisingly, when the characters and comedy come to the fore he’s pretty anonymous.
When Nobby gets news of his brother’s whereabouts, he tracks Sebastian down and, within minutes, wrecks his latest mission. Forced to go on the run together, the mismatched siblings first hide out in Grimsby (where Nobby’s idea of a "secure location" is a novel one), before heading to the more traditionally exotic locations of the international spy game.
The comedy is as broad as it could be, knee-deep in political incorrectness and bad taste. But as ever with Cohen, it’s fueled by such imagination and daft abandon that what ought to be offensive becomes hilarious. Much of it is sex-related, from Nobby’s attempt to save his brother from the venom of a poison dart (ending with Strong’s superb delivery of the retort, “It was a trickle of pre-ejaculate at the most”) to the brothers’ unfortunate encounter with elephants on heat, which beggars belief and will leave many viewers in a crumpled mess.
The movie is filled with seemingly improvised moments. One standout bit finds Cohen, in turtleneck and underpants, offering a deliberately bad Sean Connery impersonation to Gabourey Sidibe’s maid, who he mistakenly thinks he must seduce on behalf of Queen and Country. More pre-planned humor includes a moment of deliciously naughty wish-fulfillment involving Donald Trump.
Strong is terrific as the straight man to Cohen’s buffoon; despite the clamor for a black Bond, "Grimsby" offers up a compelling alternative. Penelope Cruz seems to be enjoying herself as a diabolical mastermind, but Ian McShane is underused as Sebastian’s MI6 boss. Some appropriately colorful British character actors populate a version of Grimsby, here twinned with Chernobyl, which won’t do much for the real town’s tourism prospects.
Not that anyone is meant to take offense. Throughout, Cohen and his co-writers frequently return to the brothers’ back story, and the pain both have felt in their separation years before. It’s a shrewd move, which offers a sweet, sincere underpinning to the comic mayhem. And it may help to make this Cohen’s most mass appeal movie to date. Whether he should remain in this lighter comic vein is another matter. As frequently hilarious as "Grimsby" is, it doesn’t see Cohen working at his full potential; we need him back in "Borat" mode, baring his teeth.
"The Brothers Grimsby" opens in the U.S. on March 11.