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Back in the late ‘90s, when Da Ali G Show pulled in big ratings and before the Kazakh clown Borat spun off with his own film, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was arguably the funniest man in Britain, if you didn’t count Boris Johnson (the outgoing mayor of London). In the wake of the disappointment that was 2012’s The Dictator, The Brothers Grimsby (which will be called just Grimsby when it opens in the U.K. on Feb. 24) provides further evidence that Baron Cohen, having embarked on a career as a straight actor, is perhaps going a bit soft in his middle age. And that’s not something one says lightly about a film featuring jokes about pedophilia, AIDS and people being accidentally anally penetrated by all manner of strange objects.
Indeed, although bawdy penetration gags run right through the film, there’s considerably less of the incisive satirical skewering that distinguished Baron Cohen’s early work. It’s possible that what’s changed isn’t the writer-producer-star himself so much, but the industry and the social climate, making it harder to finance films that are authentically risky and potentially hugely offensive. It’s almost inconceivable now, with the way things are when it comes to representation, especially in the U.S., that a white Jewish man could get away with playing a racially ambiguous character like Ali G, who achieved comedy immortality back in 1999 with the line, “Is it because I is black?”
RELEASE DATE Mar 11, 2016
Today, Baron Cohen is more contained and circumspect, confined to making jokes mostly about genitals and excrement. That kind of body humor was always in his repertoire in the old days (think of the epic naked tussle with Ken Davitian in Borat, for instance). What’s significantly missing here is any spontaneous interactions with unsuspecting members of the public, the comedy of cruelty and irony that was always his strongest suit. Meanwhile, even a cursory survey of trailers on YouTube suggests that some of The Brothers Grimsby’s sharper, crueler lines have been cut, and like every third movie off the production lines above a certain budget, big chunks of it look like a shooter-style computer game, necessitated by a script that casts Mark Strong (best known, despite his triumphs on the stage, for his character work in Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service) as super-spy Sebastian Grimsby, reunited after a 28-year separation with long-lost brother Nobby (Baron Cohen). Perhaps producer-distributors Sony, famously burnt so badly recently with the backfiring satire of The Interview, plan to spin a game out of this for the Playstation platform.
Even the citizens of Grimsby themselves, who famously took umbrage at the thought of what fun Baron Cohen might poke at them when the film was just in production, could hardly object much to this depiction. Sure, the “Oop North” shown here is indeed a mildly grim place of poverty, where football (soccer) is the official religion and nearly everyone is overweight, drinks to excess and smokes, even the kids. (“At your age, you should only be vaping,” Nobby advises his 10-year-old son.) But, by gum, Nobby loves his kids, all 10 or 11 of them. One is named “Django Unchained,” another “Gangham Style” and a third “Luke” for the fake leukemia Noddy and his wife (Rebel Wilson) have made the authorities think the kid has so they can get extra welfare. It’s even a sign of the times, and how much Baron Cohen has apparently evolved, that Wilson’s generous size, and that of Gabourey Sidibe (who appears later as a maid at a South African hotel whom Nobby must seduce for reasons too complicated to explain), is barely sniggered at.
Fat jokes are so passé. But male-to-male fellatio-related humor, judging by the evidence here, is still all the rage, as are jokes involving genitalia of elephantine proportions. Baron Cohen and Strong are both robustly physical performers, and their finest moments are when they’re grappling with each other, producing a great tangle of limbs and teeth. But the script, credited to Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston and Peter Baynham (based on a story by Baron Cohen and Johnston), is not especially generous to the other members of the cast. Wilson gets by in the very few scenes she’s in on sheer native charisma, while Isla Fisher (Baron Cohen’s wife in real life, and one of the finest female comedians around today) is pretty much wasted in a strictly functional supporting part. Only Penelope Cruz seems to be having fun with a baddie role that basically makes her the Mugatu (of Zoolander fame) in this film, but with less interesting hair.
Production companies: Four by Two Films, Working Title, Big Talk Pictures
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Isla Fisher, Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenplay: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston, Peter Baynham, based on a story by Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston
Producers: Sacha Baron Cohen, Nira Park
Executive producers: Louise Rosner Meyer, Todd Schulman, Phil Johnston, Peter Baynham, James Biddle, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Ant Hines, Adam McKay, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Editors: James Thomas, Jonathan Amos
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Music: Erran Baron Cohen, David Buckley
Casting: Lucy Bevan
Rated R, 83 minutes
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