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Culture » Film Reviews

Punching Down

In The Brothers Grimsby, the Sacha Baron Cohen who mocked small-mindedness is gone.



Ten years ago, in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen held up clueless white-male privilege, racist cruelty and idiotic sexism (among other petty small-mindednesses) as worthy of ridicule. Three years after that, in Brüno, he held up straight men's gay panic (as well as other kneejerk ignorances and superficialities) as deserving of derision. But the daring and fearless cultural critic that Baron Cohen once was would be appalled by the crass viciousness of The Brothers Grimsby. He has made himself the target of his former self with a witless action "comedy" that embraces the lowest forms of cruelty and bigotry. It wallows in anti-intellectualism, and celebrates poor-bashing as great good fun.

The Brothers Grimsby is a soul-crushing experience not only for what it is itself, but for what it represents about the downfall of a comic who previously displayed genuine creative genius: He has become what he once rightly disdained. He now panders to those he once rightly mocked.

Ten years ago, Baron Cohen would be dismayed at the glee with which today's Baron Cohen invites us to laugh at his portrayal—as star and co-writer—of Nobby Butcher, who doesn't work, has 11 kids, proudly announces the welfare scams that bring money into the household, and enjoys shooting fireworks out of his ass down at the pub. Ten years ago, Baron Cohen might have held up for ridicule the 1 percenters who reduced Nobby's hometown of Grimsby—a working-class city in the north of England—to a post-industrial hellscape, but here it is only the unemployed poor who come in for abuse. They drink too much, have too many kids and are generally disgusting slobs living the high life on the government teat. (Here's another movie, along with London Has Fallen, that Donald Trump supporters will love.)

But even after holding up Nobby as a happy-yet-revolting moron, Grimsby expects us to feel something akin to tenderness for him when he finally finds his long-lost brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), who was adopted separately when they were orphaned as children. Sebastian is now a top agent with MI-6—smart, sleek and supremely competent, the precise opposite of Nobby—but we cannot feel much kindness or generosity toward him, either. Even after Nobby has ruined one of Sebastian's ops, injured the agent, further endangered the agent's cover and life, and has even done some idiotic things that threaten world peace and stability, Sebastian still has not run away in the opposite direction.

Any attempt on the movie's part to create authentic brotherly feeling between the men is missing. In its place, we have a thoroughly fatuous spy send-up (directed by The Transporter's Louis Leterrier), as Nobby tags along on Sebastian's mission to stop a fiendish plot to kill millions. And that is subsumed to endlessly drawn-out scenes of penis panic—a new subset of gay panic that Baron Cohen appears to have invented—that are designed to engage the viewer's presumed revulsion rather than pity it, as Circa-2006 Baron Cohen would have done. Grimsby presumes that the viewer will agree that overweight women—not just Rebel Wilson as Nobby's wife but, in a truly vile sequence, Gabourey Sidibe as a hotel maid—are gross, and the fact that Nobby finds them sexy is hilarious.

On the other hand, Grimsby presumes that we will agree with Nobby that discovering that one of your pop-culture heroes is gay is the same as discovering that one of them is a rapist. And after all of this, we will be invited to consider that the very people that the movie has been offering up to us as poor, dumb and good for absolutely nothing are in fact the essential foundations of society. We do not buy it, not even a little bit. The movie itself doesn't even seem to buy it.

Grimsby is lazy, cheap, lurid and stupid. It is painfully unfunny and, worst of all, pointless. It is so short—well under 90 minutes—yet feels so endless. I don't know how Sacha Baron Cohen found himself in this place; there may be a tragically sad story in that. But there can be no excuse for this movie.