By Preston Wilder
Can dumb jokes be told by clever people? Actually, it happens all the time. You have to be smart to make it in Hollywood, not just street-smart but high-IQ-smart (there are meetings to take, pitches to be made, producers to impress) – but all those smart people have no problem leaving their smarts at the door to make abysmally stupid comedies. Sacha Baron Cohen is slightly different: he makes dumb jokes too, his specialty being the gross-out provocation – yet he can’t quite repress the restless prankster’s intelligence behind his work, whether exposing people’s prejudice as Borat or the hypocrisy of Western powers bleating about ‘democracy’ in The Dictator.
To quote the great Spinal Tap, “It’s a fine line between stupid and clever” – and it takes a while to decide on which side of the line The Brothers Grimsby belongs. More than any of SBC’s previous movies (and perhaps spurred by the box-office failure of The Dictator, which he may have felt wasn’t ‘outrageous enough’), Grimsby wallows in gross humour, much of it anal-fixated, wildly inappropriate or just plain disgusting. At first I thought the equivalent of the nude-wrestling scene in Borat – an out-of-nowhere detour designed to shock and provoke – would be the scene where Nobby is forced to suck poison out of Sebastian’s bloated scrotum, but in fact I was wrong. There’s a much, much worse scene later on, which I wouldn’t dream of describing. Let’s just say it involves elephants.
Nobby (Baron Cohen, who also co-wrote the script) and Seb (Mark Strong) are long-lost brothers, though they couldn’t be more different. Seb is a suave secret agent whereas Nobby is a pig-ignorant chav living in the titular seaport, fixated on football, beer and having sex with his fat, flatulent wife (Rebel Wilson, inevitably). He has an ‘England’ tattoo on his back, a bad case of perpetual builder’s bum, and a passel of kids with names like Skeletor and Django Unchained. “And this is Luke,” he says, introducing Seb to a young lad with no hair. “We call him that ’cos he’s got leukaemia.”
It’s OK, he doesn’t really (they just say he does to get benefits): the film doesn’t actually make fun of children with leukaemia – but part of the reason why it belongs on the ‘clever’ side of the ledger is the satirist’s glee with which it takes aim at forbidden targets, the more self-righteous the better. Daniel Radcliffe, with his eminently punchable face, doesn’t really count (though wishing a slow lingering death on Harry Potter is a bold move) – but there’s also, for instance, “Middle East peace symbol Schlomo Khalidi”, a little boy in a wheelchair whose Malala-like virtue and purity are ferociously mocked. The Brothers Grimsby is essentially political and extremely class-conscious, basically asking the question ‘Why should some people be revered while others are beneath contempt?’. Chavs like Nobby are the dreaded “underclass”, “the scum”, “the idiots”, viewed as embarrassingly crude, worthless and (here’s the dangerous part) disposable; as in his Ali G days, SBC puts the bourgeoisie face-to-face with its worst nightmare – though it’s also not 100 per cent clear where he himself (a nice Jewish middle-class boy) stands on the matter. Grimsby is about two-thirds immature and one-third formidably smart, an unusual balance.
It’s also very funny, even for someone (like me) who has zero patience with gross-out humour. There’s more to the film than bodily fluids and obvious provocations. Baron Cohen does double entendres and Carry On smut like nobody else; 50 years ago, he could’ve been writing West End farces. The not-very-good Ali G movie nonetheless contained a hilarious scene where Ali was talking about porn stars going in “through the back door” and his Cabinet colleagues thought he was talking about asylum seekers – and Grimsby does an even more extended balancing act where Nobby, having mistaken a maid for a femme fatale and vice versa, asks the ‘maid’ to clean up a revolting mess while she talks about something else altogether. “It’s enormous”. “I bet it tastes like strawberries.” “How do you know that when I see it I’m not going to fall madly in love with you?” And so on.
I admit I was slightly on the fence about Brothers Grimsby – but the film finally outdoes even The Dictator (which itself was wildly underrated) in two important ways. Firstly, it works as an action movie, courtesy of hired gun Louis Leterrier who made his name on Luc Besson joints like The Transporter (part of me hopes he was hired just because SBC thought it’d be funny to have a director called ‘Louis the terrier’). Secondly, despite the grossness, it works in a family-values, Spielbergian way, the brothers’ reunion – set up in childhood flashbacks – surprisingly sweet and aww-inspiring. You may want to cheer when Nobby and Sebastian finally join forces to save the day, even though it involves dropping their trousers and … well, never mind about that. Trust me: it’s smarter than it looks.
DIRECTED BY Louis Leterrier
STARRING Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher
US/UK 2016 83 mins