At one point in The Brothers Grimsby, two men being chased by assassins hide inside an elephant’s vagina. Then a male elephant comes calling. This is a good example of what to expect in the latest comedy by Sacha Baron Cohen. For those with a taste for low-brow (but never stupid) humor: Run, don’t walk. For everyone else: Move along, nothing to see here.
Still, The Brothers Grimsby is a step up from The Dictator, the leaden comedy that marked Cohen’s transition into narrative features after the mockumentaries Borat and Brüno. All three of those movies were directed by Larry Charles, a former staff writer and producer on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The Brothers Grimsby was directed by Louis Leterrier, whose previous credits include Clash of the Titans and Transporter 2. Make of this what you will.
The Brothers Grimsby, which spoofs espionage thrillers of the James Bond and Jason Bourne variety, contains a fair amount of action, which explains Leterrier’s participation. But the bulk of the film is a comedy about class differences, punctuated at regular intervals by gross-out gags involving bodily orifices and fluids. One bit, already notorious, involves a computer-generated Donald Trump accidentally contracting HIV. This sounds tasteless and desperate, until you see it within the context of the movie. Afterward, it is still tasteless and desperate. But it is also kind of hilarious, regardless of your political leanings.
Nobby (Cohen), a working-class lunkhead and soccer fanatic, discovers his long-lost brother (Mark Strong) is now an MI6 super-agent, and they embark on a mission together. That’s pretty much all you get in terms of story — narrative is not Cohen’s strong suit — but The Brothers Grimsby doesn’t need any more than that. The movie is a series of skits that have been stitched together into an 80-minute movie. Gabourey Sidibe plays a hotel maid whose full-sized figure reminds Nobby of his wife (Rebel Wilson). Penelope Cruz is an activist who may be harboring a secret agenda. Tamsin Egerton is a beautiful British spy who tries in vain to seduce Nobby.
That seduction, which plays out entirely with dialogue, is one of the funniest scenes in the movie — an example of how smart and playful Cohen’s comedy can be, even at its most childish. For all its coarseness, the movie is surprisingly affectionate toward its working-class protagonists. The scenes of Nobby at home with his 11 kids, including Luke (short for Leukemia), are downright sweet. Nobby is one of Cohen’s more endearing creations, a dim-witted bloke with a hardscrabble life who loves people as much as he loves heroin, which he calls a gateway drug (as in “a gateway drug to more heroin”). No, it’s not all that sophisticated. But compared to glib junk like Zoolander 2, The Brothers Grimsby is practically high art. Unlike Ben Stiller, at least Cohen is trying.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher, Penelope Cruz, Rebel Wilson, Gabourey Sidibe, Barkhad Abdi, Ian McShane.
Director: Louis Leterrier.
Screenwriters: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston, Peter Baynham.
A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 82 minutes. Vulgar language, considerable nudity, explicit sex, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.