Box-Office Fiasco: Why Sacha Baron Cohen's Stunts (and Trump Bashing) Couldn't Save 'Brothers Grimsby'

The Brothers Grimsby - H 2015
Facebook/Columbia Pictures

Sony's $60 million-plus comedy opens to a dismal $3.2 million in North America, a career-low for the British actor and comedian.

If Sacha Baron Cohen knew his latest film, The Brothers Grimsby, was in trouble, he certainly didn't let on in the weeks leading up to the film's release.

The famous and indefatigable British prankster showed up at the Oscars as his signature character, Ali G, to riff on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and held a friends and family screening with Kim Kardashian, a clip of which she promptly posted on Instagram.

Among his numerous other publicity efforts, Cohen also handcuffed Matt Lauer when appearing on the Today show and, most recently, showed up at Funny or Die's offices in New York City, where he stepped out on the balcony and used a megaphone to answer questions from the public.

The stunts were all designed to create a viral firestorm and heighten interest in the Sony movie, but it didn't work. Brothers Grimsby bombed spectacularly over the weekend, opening to $3.2 million, by far the worst showing of Cohen's career.

Cohen's fans simply weren't interested in the story of a dim-witted English football hooligan (Cohen) who reunites with his super-spy brother (Mark Strong). Brothers Grimsby was also skewered by critics, who adored Cohen's 2006 breakthrough comedy Borat.

"I just think Grimsby wasn't fully fleshed out like his previous efforts, but I also think his shtick has grown a bit tiresome," said box-office analyst Jeff Bock.

"None of his characters ever matched the success of Borat, which brings us to this: Is it time for Borat 2: Back in Kasak? Bock continued. "Borat was really his only truly lovable character, if you think about it. Borat didn't have the hard edge and meanness inherent in his latter films."

Sony has long known that Brothers Grimsby had its issues. The studio took over distribution duties from Paramount in 2014 and planned to unfurl the R-rated comedy in July 2015, but its release was pushed back several times, eventually landing on March 11. The movie cost $60 million-plus before rebates, although Sony had two financing partners, LStar Capital and Village Roadshow.

And in recent days, the studio had to weather headlines over a scene in which presidential contender Donald Trump accidentally contracts AIDS. Cohen has long poked fun at Trump, including in December, when he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in character as Borat and said that Trump's insistence on banning Muslims shows he has the "brain of a female chicken."

Overseas, Brothers Grimsby is also in dire trouble, including in Cohen's home country, the U.K., where it opened two weeks ago and has amassed a disappointing $6.1 million to date. This weekend, it took in only $3.2 million internationally as it expanded into a total of 34 markets for an early foreign total of $11.2 million and global cume of $14.4 million.

"Sacha worked really hard, and the marketing department worked really hard. We think we have a really funny movie but for whatever reason, it didn't convert," said Sony distribution chief Rory Bruer, whose studio endured more misses than not in the last year. Sony hopes to see its fortunes turn around with upcoming titles including Miracles From Heaven, The Angry Birds Movie, Ghostbusters and Inferno.

In 2006, Borat surprised Hollywood with a $26.5 million opening on its way to clearing $261.6 million worldwide. Three years later, Bruno debuted to a stellar $30.6 million domestically, but topped out at $138.5 million globally. Cohen's last comedy, The Dictator, opened to $17.4 million in 2012 and earned $179.4 million worldwide.

Cohen has appeared in supporting roles in other films, including Les Miserables and Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

"I personally think he's hilarious, but maybe it's time for him to reach out. I'm not saying he needs to join Adam Sandler's posse at Netflix, but I'm sure there is some top-flight talent that would love to collaborate with him," said Bock. "And rule No. 1 — never, ever make a movie with soccer as part of the plot. It's like trying to sell MLS tickets to Premier League fans."