Howard Hawks once famously described a good movie as one with three great scenes and no bad ones. I’d love to know what he’d make of The Brothers Grimsby, the ramshackle new action-comedy from Sacha Baron Cohen, which has plenty of terrible scenes but also three very, very funny ones. I laughed a lot during those three moments, sometimes rather guiltily, but barely managed more than a chuckle elsewhere. That’s not enough to recommend The Brothers Grimsby, but it does suggest what might have been. Baron Cohen is still capable of explosive, shocking humor. But the digging to get there is a lot more arduous than it used to be.
The movie stars Baron Cohen as Nobby, a stupid English hooligan who drinks too much, yells too loud during soccer matches, and has so many kids he can’t keep their names straight. (His youngest is called Django Unchained.) But his dead-end life is about to become very exciting. His long-lost kid brother Sebastian (Mark Strong), whom he hasn’t seen since they were adopted by different parents almost 30 years ago, shows up out of the blue, and it turns out he’s an ass-kicking spy. Through a misunderstanding, Sebastian is believed to have assassinated a dignitary, and now he and Nobby must go on the run to protect a philanthropist, Rhonda George (Penélope Cruz), from shady terrorists while evading MI6 (led by an underused Ian McShane), which wants to bring Sebastian to justice.
The bulk of The Brothers Grimsby’s humor stems from the contrast in styles between suave, handsome Sebastian and crude, homely Nobby. This joke is funny for about three minutes, and after that we’re stuck with a pretty perfunctory odd-couple pairing; blessedly the film has the good sense to be less than an hour-and-a-half long. What’s funny, however, is that Strong is the member of this duo who shines brighter, his reserved, beleaguered secret agent constantly fuming over his idiotic brother’s latest screw-up. The actor, normally cast as the haughty villain in blockbuster movies, does a lot by not doing much at all.
Strong’s restraint tends to underline just how shtick-y Baron Cohen, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay, comes across. It wasn’t so long ago that he seemed like a potent comedic force: Between Da Ali G Show and Borat, Baron Cohen took real risks with his antagonistic, impolite humor, exposing the smiling phoniness of the politicians and celebrities he interviewed. But a decade removed from Borat’s critical and commercial success—and now too famous to be able to hide behind constructed personas such as Borat or the significantly less amusing Brüno—Baron Cohen’s comedy no longer feels very edgy, his political barbs possessing little sting. On an extremely superficial level, Nobby is “outrageous,” but he’s never lovably oafish or transcendently dopey. Mostly, he’s just a dull dolt.
Maybe the film would have had a defter touch with another director. Louis Leterrier is the man behind Now You See Me, some Transporter films, and the Clash of the Titans remake—not exactly an oeuvre littered with laugh riots—and unlike how Paul Feig kept last year’s Spy light on its feet by emphasizing the jokes over the action, Leterrier miscalculates by switching that ratio. As a result, Baron Cohen keeps hurling wan one-liners over the sounds of explosions and gunfire, and the film proves more manic than anarchic. And it’s not like the action scenes are that good, anyway.
Baron Cohen is a comedian who’s often gone for the gratuitous, but what’s depressing about The Brothers Grimsby is how base its humor can be. A man who became a movie star by boldly engaging in a naked wrestling match, Baron Cohen now stoops to oral sex jokes and tea-bagging bits that lack the impish mischievousness of his earlier years. The Brothers Grimsby’s mocking of Donald Trump just seems cheap, and cringe-worthy bits about AIDS, feces, and gay panic feel painfully calculated. There’s no greater comment behind the provocations, no point to the tastelessness. (Even worse, he’s a bad recycler, becoming the umpteenth funnyman to try the “Make one dude suck the poison out of another dude’s private areas” gag.) Without a strong comedic anchor, The Brothers Grimsby drifts along on the meager byplay between its leads, as well as some forgettable supporting turns from the likes of Rebel Wilson (as Nobby’s trashy wife), Gabourey Sidibe (as a maid Nobby tries to seduce), and Captain Phillips’ Barkhad Abdi (playing some nondescript South African lowlife).
So what about those three really funny scenes? They all happen in the film’s second half, past the point of hoping that The Brothers Grimsby will find its rhythm. Revealing much about what makes them so shamelessly hilarious would ruin the surprise. Let’s just say two of them involve delicate parts of the anatomy—one time on an animal, the other time on a human—and that the third makes such a simple point about gun violence in movies I can’t believe no one has articulated it in quite the same way. These are the sorts of vulgar, urgent jokes that once made Baron Cohen’s humor feel dangerous and vibrant. Now, though, who would make such a claim? With The Brothers Grimsby, he’s reduced to tepid genre parodies. He’s still playing ridiculous characters, but he’s lost himself along the way.