“Borat” and “Bruno” mastermind Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy has always balanced socially conscious prankster outrageousness with puerile gross-out humor, and the star again attempts that balancing act, to mixed results, with “The Brothers Grimsby,” a spy spoof that wants to have its characters deliver preachy messages and then slap them in the face with elephant penises too. Working from the premise that nothing’s funnier than endless crotch-related jokes, each one more unnerving — and disgusting — than the last, Cohen’s latest shows its true colors early on, when it stages a failed assassination that results in Daniel Radcliffe (played by Matthew Baldwin) being infected with HIV (from a wheelchair-bound Israeli-Palestinian child, no less). Then, to further up the obscene ante, it presents an extended sight of Cohen sucking poison out of his brother Mark Strong’s testicles — a tasteless incident punctuated by Strong then depositing some pre-climax bodily fluid on Cohen’s face.
Amazingly, that’s not even the crudest moment in “The Brothers Grimsby” involving ejaculating members, as a later scene finds Cohen and Strong hiding inside an elephant’s cavernous vagina, only to endure a ramrodding phallic assault from a visiting, horny male pachyderm. Subtlety is clearly of no interest to Cohen or anyone else involved in this caper, which concerns the unlikely reunion of Sebastian Butcher (Strong), a highly trained MI6 super-agent, and his brother Nobby (Cohen), a working-class English soccer hooligan whose eleven children are named things like “Django Unchained” and “Skeletor,” and who likes nothing more than getting drunk at the local pub and sticking lit firecrackers in his ass. As revealed through sporadic flashbacks, these polar-opposite siblings were separated during childhood (when they were still likeminded knuckleheads) due to Sebastian being adopted by a wealthy family — a parting that so traumatized Nobby, he’s been searching for Sebastian for the better part of the past three decades.
Nobby and Sebastian finally meet again when the former ruins the latter’s attempt to protect a famous philanthropist (Penelope Cruz) from being executed, causing MI6 to think that Sebastian is in fact a bad guy. Forced into hiding, the brothers are soon uneasily bonding, with Nobby acting like a jackass and Sebastian grimacing like a stuck-up responsible adult — until, that is, memories of their youth cause him to reassess the awfulness of his brother. Not that any of these particulars matter in the slightest, given that “The Brothers Grimsby” employs its plot as merely the staging ground for one juvenile set piece and inappropriate punchline after another, including Nobby’s wife Dawn (Rebel Wilson) telling Sebastian — who assumes from her size that she’s again with child — “I’m not pregnant, I’m just fucking fat.”
Directed by Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter,” “Now You See Me”) with his usual brand of visually spastic, loud-louder-LOUDER style, almost none of which is employed to actually spoof the spy genre, “The Brothers Grimsby” boasts an offensive in-your-face aesthetic to match its vulgar material. Leterrier’s fondness for whiz-bang computer graphics, slow-motion explosions, and rapid-fire combat does much to make the proceedings borderline intolerable. There’s a belligerent quality to the action that does much to undermine Cohen’s humor, less because it leaves one feeling too drained to laugh than because it leads to such breakneck momentum that there’s no rhythm to set-up and deliver the jokes, or segue between them. At a brisk 83 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome, but the price is that it also feels unsure of its material, eager to speed onward lest its flimsiness be exposed.
Such fleetness also means there’s no time for Ian McShane and Isla Fisher (as MI6 officials working to locate/covertly help Nobby and Sebastian) to do anything other than stand around offices staring at video monitors and speaking into cell phones, their interludes so perfunctory as to be borderline insulting. Even Strong, put through one humiliation after another, barely appears to know what’s going on, so busy is he being drugged with heroin and doused in animal semen. Strong’s gruff Sebastian is merely the foil for Cohen’s lewd, unreasonably cocky Nobby, but even considering that limited role, he’s relegated to merely a dull prop in service of over-the-top bits eager to one-up their predecessors.
And yet if the film is unnecessarily slipshod, its crassness is so uninhibited and extreme as to occasionally amuse. Sporting ludicrous muttonchops and a beer paunch, and behaving like a deranged, drunken football-fanatic cartoon, Cohen’s Nobby is an outsized man-child unhinged from any notions of decency, and by the conclusion, the story has turned him into the spokesman-cum-savior of his lower-class “scum” brethren, who face extermination at the hands of nefarious population-controlling villains. Those socio-cultural concerns are so haphazardly tacked onto the finale that they scarcely resonate. Regardless, Cohen’s willingness to do, or say, anything in order to elicit a chuckle at least somewhat salvages “The Brothers Grimsby” — right up to a riotously nasty climactic gag shoved down the throat of Donald Trump. [C+]