First, the good news. “The Brothers Grimsby,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest exploration in pushing the boundaries of taste, gets a couple of things right. First and foremost, it clocks in at a tight 82 minutes — it knows just how long its schtick will last. Secondly, co-writer and star Baron Cohen’s Nobby Butcher, a working-class British football hooligan from the town of Grimsby, is an entertaining character to throw into a spy parody. With his Liam Gallagher haircut and ever-present road beer, he’s created a character that would be amusing to observe in just about any situation.
The bad news is that situations cooked up by writers Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham, on the other hand, are entirely execrable. Literally. There’s a bizarre, obsessive fixation on bodily fluids (in the gallons) and orifices (for spelunking). The problem is that the writers overly rely on these taboo, gross-out displays to provide laughs, instead of, you know, actual jokes. There is no private part of the body — male, female, animal, inside, out — left unmolested by the writers of “The Brothers Grimsby,” and it’s what ultimately derails the film.
The story sees the reunion of Nobby with his long-lost brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), separated by an adoption as kids. Nobby stayed in Grimsby, binge drinking down at the pub and siring 11 kids, while Sebastian turned into an awesome super spy in the style of James Bond by way of Jason Bourne. By a truly facile turn of events (a buddy shouts “they found your brother!”), the two meet again during one of Sebastian’s missions, where he’s attempting to thwart the assassination of philanthropist Rhonda George (Penelope Cruz).
Bumbling Nobby causes Sebastian to botch the job, and the brothers go on the lam, with bad guys and bad spies on their tails in shoot-em-up action sequences chaotically directed by Louis LeTerrier. Nobby mucks things up and/or saves the day for his brother. He’s actually quite funny as an unlikely action star, shuffling about in his socks and shower sandals, or trying to show respect for the anonymous would-be hit men shot dead. It’s the minor character details that make it work, Nobby remaining ever himself in extraordinary circumstances. What doesn’t work are the extreme, grotesque scenarios that the writers have thrust the characters into — and it does require a lot of thrusting.
A bit of class struggle is injected into the proceedings, though as Nobby is motivating the working- class “scum” with a speech that they “built the hospitals,” in the same breath, he also jabs that they “are keeping the Fast and Furious franchise alive.” The proletarian message is wrapped in a depiction of working-class people as dumb, fat, drunkards. Hardly empowerment.
Rebel Wilson turns up as Nobby’s randy girlfriend, Dawn, and Baron Cohen’s wife, Isla Fisher, co-stars as Sebastian’s MI-6 gal Friday. Fisher manages to remain unscathed, which is more than can be said for the other female co-stars, including Gabourey Sidibe as a South African hotel maid. It must be said that the humiliations rained upon Baron Cohen and Strong are far worse, and involve not one, but two (perhaps three) sexual assaults involving both incest and bestiality. A final tag teases a future for these characters, but if it’s anything like this, we’ll pass.
The Brothers Grimsby
☆ out of 5.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Isla Fisher, Gabourey Sidibe, Penelope Cruz.
Director: Louis Leterrier.
Running time: 1:22.
Rated: R, for strong crude sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, language, and some drug use.