THERE are two distinct eras in the career of Sacha Baron Cohen: before he became world-famous, and after. Back in the late 90s, a little-known comedy writer and presenter started making waves with his harassment of celebrities under the guises of characters like Ali G, Borat and Brüno. All three of these characters received movie spin-offs in the Noughties to mixed responses (long story short: Ali G Indahouse has its moments, Borat is brilliant and Brüno is awful), and Cohen married the gorgeous Isla Fisher in 2010. Chuck in his show-stealing voiceover in Madagascar, an extended cameo in Sweeney Todd and a supporting role in Talladega Nights, and Baron Cohen was an outright star by 2010.
After Borat, which received unanimous acclaim for its satire of casual and institutional racism, Baron Cohen had a difficult time disappearing into any of his characters. His subsequent films have been a mix of mainstream hits like Les Miserables and scripted comedies like The Dictator, the latter of which was a broad political farce that yielded mediocre results.
Baron Cohen has returned with a new original character in Grimsby, released as The Brothers Grimsby in countries which have never heard of Grimsby. Local reaction suggests that Grimsby residents would have preferred not to be promoted in this film. The altered title is a better one really, with a clever pun rather than just the name of a location which is only featured in the first act.
Grimsby is the story of Nobby and Sebastian, two brothers who were separated as children after the sudden death of their parents. The elder Nobby stayed in Grimsby and continued on his path to lifelong yobitude. He’s a beer-swilling, football-obsessed dole dosser with nine children and a penchant for overweight women. It’s a stretch to call Nobby a new character, because we’ve seen these stereotypes done to death and Cohen has no new insight and the attempts to make Nobby a sympathetic character are hampered by ugly and cheap gags. Sacha Baron Cohen is one of the most charismatic comedic talents in the world, but even he can’t breathe much humanity into a character which would end up on the cutting room floor of Little Britain.
Baron Cohen seemed somewhat aware of Nobby’s lack of potential as a standalone character and kept scenes featuring him sans-brother to a minimum. The second and more tolerable brother is Sebastian, played by Guy Ritchie veteran Mark Strong. Like Jason Statham in last year’s much better spy comedy Spy, Strong tinkers about with his action movie persona while still playing a straightforward action hero. He has few jokes of his own, being the straightest of straight men, but Strong has the necessary timing to pull off a decent duo with Baron Cohen. Unfortunately, Mark Strong already featured in a better spy comedy last year, Kingsman, and throughout this film you’ll wish it had a script that strong.
With himself as the comedic foil to Strong’s straight man, Baron Cohen and his usual writing partners didn’t make much room for anyone else to be funny. Ian McShane as Sebastian’s boss does nothing except spout exposition and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was only on set for a day. Isla Fisher makes her first appearance in one of her husband’s films as a colleague and love interest of Sebastian, and it wastes her comic ability on a nothing role. Since her hilarious breakout in Wedding Crashers a decade ago, she’s been mostly stuck in roles like this which require her to be pretty and inoffensive, and really her husband should be more generous.
Penelope Cruz follows up her pointless role in Zoolander 2 with another disappointing appearance here. I suppose she’s meant to be a parody of Angelina Jolie; a beautiful actress and philanthropist parading underprivileged children out to the world. Of course she’s secretly the villain, in an obvious twist. Cruz is a damn good actress and looks as stunning as ever, but she hasn’t made an interesting impact on film since her Oscar-winning turn in Vicky Christina Barcelona and just isn’t the goofball these films require her to be. She’s particularly lacklustre compared to Spy’s Rose Byrne, who also played a glamorous villain against an unglamorous adversary with much funnier results, and her grand plan is almost copy-and-pasted from Kingsman. 2016 was not the year to bring out yet another fucking spy comedy, when we just had two really good ones!
On the opposite end, we have two women who are not as classically beautiful as Fisher and Cruz and therefore exist as receptacles for lazy fat jokes. Rebel Wilson is a dangerous element in any film; use her well and she’s downright hysterical, but here she’s just an ugly footnote. When the breakout star of Pitch Perfect never rises higher than a “fanny fart” joke, you’re in trouble. Even more insulting is the way they treat Gabourey Sidibe.
In shallow Hollywood, Sidibe will probably never have another Precious, but she’s given decent performances in TV shows like American Horror Story and Empire, and her cameo as “Black Hitler” in Jimmy Kimmel’s “Movie: The Movie” sketch is immortal. I don’t know what they told Sidibe to coax her in, because there’s nothing to her maid character but a cheap mistaken identity joke which won’t make anybody actually laugh unless they find the idea of sleeping with a woman larger than Size 14 just too unfathomable.
It’s not just rotund actresses who get a raw deal. If you glimpsed Ricky Tomlinson, Johnny Vegas, John Thompson and John Bradley in the trailer and thought, “Hey, that guy’s funny and here he is in a movie!”, you’re about to piss away the price of a ticket. This film can only pray to lampoon working class fecklessness with the wit of The Royle Family, and Vegas would have been a much better addition to the writing team than the ensemble. Bradley is particularly wasted, not getting a single line, and IMDB is denying that he was even in the film (but I know Samwell Tarly when I see him). None of these gifted men do anything other than be fat, drink beer, be fat, laugh at Cohen’s antics, be fat and react to gay things with disdain.
I’m hesitant to call Cohen homophobic, because I do think Bruno was intended to satirise homophobes rather than to point and laugh at gay people and only failed because its lead character was so obnoxious and sociopathic that he incited hatred rather than finding it by chance. Borat’s best virtue is the positivity of the character and the patience and attempts at tolerance by the public. Borat relied on innocent ignorance, Brüno relied on provovation, and, at the very least, Grimsby is callously heteronormative.
The brothers end up in several “gay panic” situations with each other, and it’s baffling that the homoerotic nature of these setpieces is treated with more repulsion than the incest. Maybe that’s the whole point, and Cohen is making fun of working-class machismo and the related homophobia, but you can only have so many jokes about men ejaculating on each other before you just give up trying to defend it.
I’ve been pretty negative so far, but Grimsby isn’t completely bereft of humour. Parts of it are funny; there are some easy but gratifying topical jokes, a bizarre running gag about Daniel Radcliffe, and some of the ludicrous setpieces are unforgettable, but I can’t remember actually laughing out loud much. The audience I watched with had a few people laughing their arses off but many weren’t laughing at all, and even at less than 90 minutes it feels flabby.
Compare this to Borat, which had hours and hours of excess footage to pick from. There are germs of ideas which had more potential; for example, Nobby, who has never left the UK, gets his mitts on a handgun for the first time near the climax, leading to some sharp jokes alluding to America’s gun regulation problem. I can definitely see Fox News going nuts over a couple of scenes in this movie. The very last few jokes in the film are among the best, but you’ve got to sit through a lot of “that doesn’t belong in your bum, silly!” routines to see them, and they’re buried in the credits when many people are already on their way out the door.
The worst sin of this film is that it’s so passé. Sacha Baron Cohen can’t shock us if we expect to be shocked; even an extended sequence involving elephants which has to be seen to be believed is too contrived and looks too fake to really surprise anyone. I was just numb by that point. Too often the film relies on base themes like “fat women are gross”, “children and old people swearing”, “gay people like willies” and “Grimsby is a shithole”, but it will take a turn for hokey sentimentality and “family is important” bollocks so often that you just end up with a squashed-together mess.
I’m not over Sacha Baron Cohen yet though. He’s just too famous to do what made him famous anymore, so Borat will likely never be equalled. His upcoming film The Lesbian and the long-rumoured Freddie Mercury biopic both sound far more interesting than a lame buddy spy comedy.