“When you’re young, you have way fewer taboo topics, and then as you go through life and you have experiences with people getting cancer and dying and all the things you would have made fun of, then you don’t make fun of them anymore. So rebelliousness really is the province of young people — that kind of iconoclasm.” –Steve Martin
By all means, I should’ve hated The Brothers Grimsby with a fiery passion. It’s a cruel, crass, derivative work that turns the phrase “sophomoric humor” into a badge of honor & a mission statement. Still, I found myself quietly rooting for Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest work of depraved triviality. The film managed to pull a few hearty laughs out of me in some of its isolated gags and when a joke fell horrifically, sometimes offensively flat I felt sorta bad for the movie instead of turning against it. Since The Dictator was released upon a nonplussed world in 2012, the looming question has been if Cohen’s politically pointed shock humor shtick has become stale or if his audience has merely outgrown him as he has stubbornly refused to grow with them. I’m not sure what the correct answer is in that dichotomy (or if those two explanations are even mutually exclusive), but as a fan of Cohen’s Ali G/Borat/Brüno glory days I’m not yet willing to let him vanish into the ether. I sincerely want Cohen to return to relevant, pointed work that can carry his particular brand of cynical silliness into 2010s longevity. The Brothers Grimsby is by no means that return to form, but my desperate desire to see Cohen do well again might explain why I was soft on its many, many flaws.
Of all the various characters Cohen has played over the years, The Brothers Grimsby‘s Nobby Butcher might be the least defined. A drunk soccer hooligan from the working class community of Grimsby, England, Nobby is essentially a poverty-bound buffoon with little to no character nuance. Picture a version of Idiocracy set in the UK & you pretty much get the full picture. Nobby has “too many” children. He’s eternally intoxicated. He’s prone to anally inserting lit fireworks to impress his pub buddies, yet is an unrepentant homophobe. In his own words, Nobby is “working class scum.” There’s nothing remotely real or human about his character that could make you fall for him in any empathetic sense the same way you could for Melissa McCarthy’s somewhat similar titular character in Tammy. Nobby exists purely to prove a point, which may have worked if he were employed in the same candid camera prank mockumentary format as the Borat & Brüno movies. In a fictionalized setting, however, his paper thin, archetypal qualities fall flat the same way they did in The Dictator & The Ali G Movie.
The aspect that almost saves The Brothers Grimsby from total vapidity is Nobby’s relationship with the other Butcher brother, Sebastian. Sebastian is a Jason Statham-type superspy baldy with a chip on his shoulder & a license to kill. Nobby is hell-bent on reuniting with his much more posh brother & reminding him of his humble Grimsby roots. Sebastian’s half of The Brothers Grimsby functions well enough as a cheap-end action thriller, even giving a fairly decent preview of the dizzying-looking 1st person shooter flick Hardcore Henry that’s barreling towards us in the coming months. When Nobby starts to get involved, the film takes a turn for superspy spoofery that pales in comparison to countless comedies that have done it better in the past, most notably last year’s Spy (another McCarthy vehicle; perhaps these two should collaborate; Cohen might learn a thing or two). It’s not the superspy spoofery that threatens to elevate The Brothers Grimsby, though. It’s the familial bond between the Butcher boys. There’s real pain in their separation-anxious childhood flashbacks. Watching them reconnect is even more touching (sometimes graphically so). I never would’ve expected that a film featuring untold gallons of elephant semen would center on a message as sweet as “Family is the greatest gift in life”, but it’s that very aspect of The Brothers Grimsby that provides a window into a better world where Cohen could possibly become lovable again.
Speaking of elephant semen, The Brothers Grimsby seems intentionally dead-set on outdoing Freddy Got Fingered on sheer volume of the stuff. That’s not the only way Freddy Got Fingered functions as a telling reference point for The Brothers Grimsby either. In the hellish version of reality where every movie is a sophomoric, depraved work of delirious slapstick comedy, Freddy Got Fingered is Citizen Kane & The Brothers Grimsby is Forrest Gump. It’s almost good, far from great, and sure to send plenty of discerning, right-minded folks into a huff at the mere mention of its name. In the slightly less horrific world we actually live in, The Brothers Grimsby is more in line with scatologically-obsessed, entirely forgettable flicks like Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star. Dumb-comedy apologists (myself included) might find a surprising amount of entertainment value in there somewhere, but no one’s seriously going to bat to defend it against the flood of negative criticism it assuredly deserves.
Roger Ebert once wrote “The day may come when ‘Freddy Got Fingered’ is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.” There is no such doubt about the future of The Brothers Grimsby, which is never quite irreverent enough to touch on formal surrealism & also wholly dedicated to punching-down humor. Jokes about AIDS, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, poop, child molestation, crack addiction, non-consensual genital contact, small town poverty and, yes, elephant semen are disappointingly cheap & forgettable, greatly distracting from the very few things the film actually, improbably gets right. If Cohen wants to stick around any longer in any semblance of relevance, he’d be smart to keep The Brothers Grimsby‘s emotional core & knack for deliriously silly diversion, leaving his misanthropic cruelty & scatological fascination in the rear-view. Otherwise, he’ll become as stale & regrettable as titles like South Park & “Two Girls, One Cup”, which are both all-too-appropriately referenced in the film. A small glimmer of hope is still out there for Cohen to grow as an artist & join us in the 2010s, but it’s fading fast.