When Sacha Baron Cohen made the television show “Ali G Indahouse” and his breakthrough 2006 movie, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” what saved him from failure was that these works were not only satires of the world around them, but self-parodies as well. “Ali G” and “Borat,” and to a lesser extent “Bruno” in 2009 and “The Dictator” in 2012, could be regarded as parodies about the limits of parody itself, and as satires that exposed the ideological ambivalence of all satire (an ambivalence that anyone who follows Israeli television satire recognizes, especially when the satire is effective).
That is what gave Baron Cohen’s best work its sophistication, which counterbalanced the crude, even childish element in the same works, a comic defiance that made no effort at sophistication and aimed instead to reach new heights of tastelessness.
It worked, up to a point anyway, in “Ali G” and “Borat”; it worked far less well in “Bruno” and “The Dictator,” where Baron Cohen seemed to be running out of new things to do. “The Brothers Grimsby,” the new film Baron Cohen co-wrote and stars in, makes a similar impression. Still, this is the best film he has made since “Borat,” thanks to a paradoxical quality in the new movie. On the obvious level, “The Brothers Grimsby” is a parody of spy and action films, the kind of parody we’ve seen many times before. Many such spoofs were made following the appearance of the James Bond movies in the early 1960s, but even before that, a stint as a bumbling secret agent seemed to be an inevitable career move for comedians from Bob Hope to Danny Kaye.
On the one hand, Baron Cohen’s decision to parody the spy movie makes “The Brothers Grimsby” predictable. On the other hand, our familiarity with this comic genre – of which the “Austin Powers” films were a good example – allows Baron Cohen to burst through the conventions of the genre and even smash them to smithereens with greater abandon than he showed in his two previous films. What also contributes to the movie’s relative success is the fact that this time, after playing characters from Kazakhstan, Austria and the Middle East, Baron Cohen returns to his own comic origin, Britain, and especially its working class.
The “Grimsby” of the title is the tawdry seaside town in northern England where Baron Cohen’s character, Nobby Butcher, lives with his wife (Rebel Wilson) and their 11 children. His one dream is to be reunited with his brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong), from whom he was separated 28 years before. When they finally meet, Nobby learns that his brother is an MI6 assassin; because of what Nobby does in the course of the reunion, Sebastian finds himself being hunted instead of doing the hunting. The two brothers, who are not at all alike in appearance, class, and especially personality, embark on a joint adventure which, as often happens in spy and action movies, leads them to exotic locations (in this case, South Africa and Chile) while they struggle to bring down a terrorist organization plotting a spectacular attack.
My account of the plot is deliberately vague, for two reasons. First, plot is the least important part of “The Brothers Grimsby.” If the movie even has a story, any attempt to look for logic or plausibility in it is doomed to failure. Second, if there’s one sure way to ruin the very particular kind of fun this kind of movie offers, it is describing the jokes and plot twists. To enjoy this kind of film, you need to be surprised and especially shocked by every joke, scene and satirical target as they try to top each other in vulgarity.
Unfortunately, this kind of reaction is rare. As in Baron Cohen’s earlier movies, nothing falls outside the realm of mockery, not even the most sensitive of humanitarian issues. Much of the humor involves the human body (especially the exposed, male version), with a special emphasis on bodily secretions and the anal region. But while Baron Cohen does manage to offend good taste in some new ways, a lot of what we see feels too familiar from his previous films, and the result is thus fatally robbed of its ability to amuse, and especially, shock us. There are some scenes that deserve a place in any anthology of recent comic highlights (I will reveal something after all: One of them involves elephants). But they are few. Most of the jokes in “The Brothers Grimsby” miss their mark, and the result lacks the fluidity of “Borat” and is more similar in its overall comic level to “Bruno” and “The Dictator.”
Unlike Baron Cohen’s last three movies, which Larry Charles directed with no objective beyond stumbling after Baron Cohen in pursuit of his comic vision, “The Brothers Grimsby” was directed by Louis Leterrier, who has experience making action movies. The seemingly disciplined professional quality Leterrier provides strengthens the movie’s comedy by clashing with the wild romping of its star and screenwriter. But this, too, only works up to a point. Maybe it is Leterrier’s work that highlights the effective difference in performance styles between Baron Cohen and Mark Strong, but the director can’t prevent many scenes in the movie from creaking, so that quite frequently in the course of this short – 83 minutes – film, I found that I had stopped even chuckling. Nor was Leterrier able to salvage some of the minor characters, especially the women, who make no comic contribution whatsoever.
“The Brothers Grimsby” will appeal mainly to those who liked Baron Cohen’s previous work, and even if the new movie seems a bit better than “Bruno” and “The Dictator,” it still conveys the feeling that this comedian’s well is drying up, and may not be likely to fill again. What Baron Cohen has added to film comedy in the last decade is not insignificant, but it seems that the joke is reaching its end, but without a good punch line in sight.
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